U.S. diplomat to visit North Korea this week

( Reuters ) - A U.S. diplomat will visit Pyongyang this week to try to push forward a stalled deal under which North Korea promised to disclose all its nuclear programs and eventually abandon them, a U.S. official said on Monday.

The trip by State Department official Sung Kim appears aimed at persuading North Korea to provide a complete and correct declaration of its nuclear programs that it failed to deliver by a December 31 deadline.

"I am hopeful that the North is now ready to have serious discussions about that and we will see," said U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who is expected to visit South Korea on February 25 for the inauguration of President-elect Lee Myung-bak.

Once North Korea has provided the declaration and disabled its key nuclear facilities at Yongbyon, the United States is expected to take steps to ease trade and to remove some U.S. economic sanctions against the secretive, communist state.

If these steps are taken, the United States hopes to enter the final phase of a multilateral agreement under which North Korea would actually dismantle its nuclear facilities and abandon all nuclear weapons and programs.

Making progress to denuclearize North Korea, whose October 2006 nuclear test was seen as a direct threat by U.S. allies South Korea and Japan, is a major foreign policy priority for U.S. President George W. Bush in his last year in office.

Sung Kim, the director of the State Department's Office of Korean Affairs, was scheduled to visit Seoul on Tuesday and Beijing on Wednesday before arriving in Pyongyang on Thursday, said a U.S. official who asked not to be named.

"He is leaving today for six-party consultations in Seoul, Beijing and Pyongyang on how to move the six-party process forward," the U.S. official said, referring to talks among the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the United States that aim to get North Korea to give up all atomic weapons and programs.

Kim is scheduled to return to Washington on February 3.

Some U.S. conservatives are frustrated that North Korea failed to produce its declaration on time and have questioned whether it has any intention of living up to the deal.

Earlier this month Jay Lefkowitz, Bush's special envoy on North Korea human rights, said that Pyongyang's failure to meet a deadline for the declaration "signals that North Korea is not serious about disarming in a timely manner."

Lefkowitz - whose comments were quickly disavowed by the State Department - said it was "increasingly clear that North Korea will remain in its present nuclear status when the administration leaves office in one year."

A senior U.S. official denied the six-party process had failed and rejected the possibility that the United States might take a more coercive stance toward North Korea by hinting at punitive actions if it fails to produce the declaration.

"That just takes you down a different road and I don't think anyone is ready to take that road," said the official, who spoke on condition that he not be named because of the sensitivity of the negotiations with North Korea.

"We are really trying to make this work. We feel, we've actually gotten some success from this process and we don't want to give up just because we are a couple of weeks off schedule," he added.

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