US nuclear negotiator to visit North Korea

US nuclear negotiator Christopher Hill will pay a rare visit to North Korea next week for talks on the Stalinist state's atomic disarmament, the State Department said Tuesday.

"He is scheduled to visit North Korea around December 3 to 5. He plans to meet with his six-party counterpart Kim Kye-Gwan and possibly other DPRK officials," department spokeswoman Nicole Thompson told AFP .

"He's going to observe the ongoing disablement activities and meet with the US disablement team in Pyongyang," she said.

Hill became the highest ranking US official to visit North Korea in nearly five years when he went for a surprise trip in June, meeting with nuclear envoy Kim and paying a courtesy call on Foreign Minister Pak Ui-Chun.

The visit came after North Korea agreed in February, under a six-party deal with China, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the United States, to disable its nuclear program in exchange for much-needed energy aid and diplomatic benefits.

Hill, the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, left Tuesday for a trip to China, Japan and South Korea to discuss the disarmament process. His North Korea leg was rumored in the South Korean press.

Hill was expected to meet with Kim in Beijing on Wednesday, according to the South Korean news agency Yonhap.

North Korea, formally the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), began shutting down its key Yongbyon reactor in July.

A team of eight US experts has been in and out of North Korea on a rotating basis since early October as part of the Yongbyon inspection process, a US embassy spokeswoman in Beijing said.

Diplomats from the five other nations arrived in Pyongyang on Tuesday to observe the full disablement of the Yongbyon facility, which is scheduled for completion by the end of this year.

"We are pretty positive. I think we are making progress," Sung Kim, head of the US State Department's Korea desk who was part of the delegation to Yongbyon, told journalists before departing the Chinese capital.

The team of officials, the first multinational delegation to travel to North Korea as part of the disarmament process, was expected to stay there for three days.

"This should be an important (visit) towards realizing the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula," Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang said.

Asked about any trip to Pyongyang by Hill, he said this was up to the two countries to decide.

"But as a current member of the six-party talks and a Northeast Asian nation, we hope that the US and North Korea can continue to improve their relations through dialogue," he told reporters.

Another round of the six-nation talks is expected to be held in Beijing next month, but so far no specific dates have been announced.

North Korea must also declare by the end of the year all of its other nuclear programs, before completely and irreversibly disarming.

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