( AP ) - The top U.S. nuclear negotiator arrived in Japan Saturday to discuss his surprise visit to North Korea, which he said yielded an agreement that could lead to a shutdown of the communist state's plutonium-producing reactor in July.
Christopher Hill - the chief U.S. negotiator at international talks on North Korea's nuclear programs - said that the Yongbyon reactor would be shutdown after the North and the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog agree on how to monitor the process.
"We expect this to be soon, but probably within three weeks ... though I don't want to be pinned down on a date," Hill told reporters in Tokyo, after briefing his Japanese counterpart on the outcome of his two-day surprise trip to the North Korea capital.Hill told CNN on Friday that the shutdown could be expected "within two weeks" of the arrival there next week of U.N. inspectors, putting the date sometime in July.
Hill said he intended to brief his Japanese counterpart on the outcome of his two-day trip to North Korea this week.
The trip - the first by a high-ranking U.S. official since October 2002 - came amid growing optimism that North Korea may finally be ready to take concrete steps toward fulfilling a promise to dismantle its nuclear programs.
Meanwhile, the North's state media reported that the country held "comprehensive and productive" discussions with Hill.
Last week, the secretive state invited inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency to begin discussions on the procedures for shutting down its Yongbyon reactor. The country expelled the U.N. nuclear inspectors in late 2002.
The IAEA announced earlier this week that a delegation led by Olli Heinonen, a deputy director general of the IAEA, would travel to Pyongyang on Tuesday to prepare for the first inspection.
Hill said he was "happy" that the team was set to go, but cautioned that shutting the reactor was just a first step.
"Shutting down the reactor won't solve all our problems, but in order to solve our problems we need to make this beginning," he said. "We really think this is the time to pick up the pace."
North Korean officials told Hill during his visit that Pyongyang was prepared to shut down the Yongbyon facility as called for in the disarmament agreement reached this past February, under which the North pledged to close the reactor and allow U.N. inspectors in exchange for energy aid.
Pyongyang was to have done that by mid-April, but missed the deadline over a delay in resolving a separate financial dispute involving North Korean funds frozen at a Macau bank.
The bank was blacklisted by the U.S. for allegedly aiding North Korea in money laundering and counterfeiting, leading to the freezing of some $25 million of North Korean money.
The money was freed earlier this year, but it was only last week that it began to be transferred to a North Korean account at a Russian bank.
Hill said earlier this week that North Korea had received the money, but told reporters on Friday the funds were "getting" to the accounts in Russia. Later Friday, Russia's deputy foreign minister said the funds will be fully transferred sometime next week.
North Korea had made the money's release a main condition for its disarmament, and used the financial dispute as a reason to stay away from six-party nuclear talks - involving the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the U.S. - for more than a year, during which it conducted its first-ever nuclear test explosion in October.
Hill said Saturday that talks could begin before the reactor was fully shut down.
"I would expect it to happen soon after shutdown begins," Hill said, adding the exact timing of the talks depended on scheduling by the host nation, China.
The North's official Korean Central News Agency, citing an unnamed Foreign Ministry spokesman, reported Saturday that the two sides agreed to "completely get over" the financial dispute.
North Korea is to ultimately get aid worth 1 million tons of heavy fuel oil and other political concessions when it disables the reactor.
The North Korean news agency reported the two sides agreed to cooperate in holding a meeting of chief delegates to the six-nation nuclear talks in early July, and a meeting of foreign ministers of those countries in early August.