A top US envoy will travel to Pyongyang next week to discuss North Korea’s disablement of its nuclear plants, which Washington hopes will move faster, a senior US official said on Friday.
Sung Kim, director of the office of Korean affairs, will leave Washington today for Seoul before traveling on to Pyongyang on Tuesday, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters.
He will consult with his South Korean and Chinese counterparts on the nuclear issue in Seoul. Chinese officials are attending the Economic and Energy Working Group meeting in Seoul and Panmunjong on Tuesday and Wednesday.
When he arrives in the North Korean capital, Kim will “talk to the North Korean six-party representatives about issues related to disablement,” McCormack added.
The North, which staged a nuclear test in October 2006, is disabling its plutonium-producing reactor and other plants under a six-party deal reached last year with the US, China, Japan, Russia and South Korea.
But disputes over a declaration on its nuclear programs that was due on Dec. 31 have blocked the start of the final phase of the process — the permanent dismantling of the plants and the handover of all material.
In return for total denuclearization, the North would receive energy aid, a lifting of US sanctions, the establishment of diplomatic relations with Washington and a formal peace treaty.
North Korea also missed an-end-of-year deadline to completely disable its nuclear plants. Kim told reporters last month that Pyongyang said it was slowing some disablement activities to “coordinate the timing of energy assistance.” The State Department says that eight out of 11 disablement activities have been completed but three others are pending.
“They’re making progress on them, but we would look for the progress to be speeded up,” McCormack said on Friday.
Asked if Kim’s mission was to hurry up disablement, McCormack replied: “No, it’s more about what do they have in mind in terms of the completion schedule and how are they going to go about completing the tasks.”
Asked whether the US was optimistic about obtaining the declaration from North Korea soon, McCormack said he preferred to be skeptical.
“In terms of optimism, well, you know, I’ll let other people use that word,” McCormack said.
“I think you heard the tone from the secretary [of state Condoleezza Rice] in terms of how she views the process and how she views the verification as being central to this process,” he said.
“And as I’ve said before, you know, we’ve heard the phrase, ‘Trust but verify.’ Well, we’re still working on the ‘verify’ part of that,” McCormack said.
Sung Kim said last month that North Korea had taken an “important first step” toward disclosing its weapons-grade plutonium programs.
Kim said the 18,822 pages of documents in 314 volumes he brought back from Pyongyang should help verify a long-delayed declaration from North Korea on its nuclear activities.
The documents were operating and production records for the five-megawatt reactor and the reprocessing plant in Yongbyon. But he said experts would also need to interview North Korean scientists and access nuclear sites in order to fully verify the declaration.
McCormack said he could provide no immediate update on the review of the documents.
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