U.S. nuclear envoy says progress possible in NKorea nuclear talks

Saturday, February 3rd 2007, 10:30 pm
By: News On 6

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) _ The main U.S. negotiator on North Korea said Saturday he believes the next round of international arms talks with the communist state could produce real progress.

``I think we do have some reason to believe we can make some progress,'' said Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill upon arriving in Seoul to coordinate strategies for next week's six-nation talks in Beijing.

Hill did not elaborate on the grounds for his optimism. But he said progress means beginning to implement a 2005 accord, in which North Korea pledged to disarm in exchange for aid and security guarantees.

Hopes are higher than ever that the latest discussions could yield concrete results amid indications that Washington and Pyongyang have narrowed differences over a key financial dispute that has hindered negotiations.

Earlier this week, the two sides held bilateral talks on that issue in Beijing. The meetings ended inconclusively, but officials indicated that enough goodwill was generated to prevent the issue from disrupting the nuclear negotiations.

``From all accounts, it was a very useful couple of days' discussions,'' Hill told reporters. ``Let's see how some of these useful substantive conversations we had can be put to use'' in the nuclear talks.

The negotiations, involving China, Japan, the two Koreas, Russia and the U.S., have made little headway since the 2005 accord _ the only ever reached in the process.

Progress stalled soon afterward because of Pyongyang's objection to U.S. financial restrictions targeting the North for its alleged counterfeiting of U.S. currency and money laundering.

A Japanese news report on Monday said the North is ready to freeze a key nuclear facility and allow U.N. nuclear agency inspectors back into the country in exchange for an easing of the U.S. financial restrictions millions of barrels of oil.

The Asahi Shimbun daily reported that Pyongyang will also demand at the Beijing talks that Washington revoke its designation of North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism.

The report quoted former U.S. State Department official Joel Wit, who met with North Korean officials in Pyongyang last week. It said the North was demanding half a million tons of oil _ the equivalent of about 3.5 million barrels.

At the latest round of disarmament talks in December _ the first after the North's October nuclear test _ Pyongyang refused to address disarmament issues and demanded the U.S. lift financial restrictions first. The North claims the measures show Washington's hostile attitude and illustrate its need for a nuclear deterrent.