- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 30, 2007

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice could meet with her North Korean counterpart and other regional foreign ministers as early as October if talks to end the Korean nuclear crisis make progress in the coming weeks, a top State Department official said yesterday.

Assistant Secretary of State Christopher R. Hill, the U.S. point man in the six-nation negotiations, also said he would press Pyongyang to begin disabling parts of its suspected nuclear program — including a temporarily mothballed nuclear reactor plant at Yongbyon — even before it submits a mandatory listing of all its nuclear assets, as required in a landmark February accord signed in Beijing.

The denuclearization program could be “overlapping, not just sequential,” Mr. Hill said.

The U.S. diplomat briefed reporters ahead of two days of bilateral talks this weekend in Geneva with North Korean top nuclear negotiator Kim Kye-gwan.

The meeting is one of five bilateral “working groups” set up between North Korea and the other countries involved in the regional talks: the United States, South Korea, Japan, Russia and China.

The last of the bilateral meetings, between North Korea and Japan, is set for early September. Mr. Hill said a subsequent new round of six-party talks in Beijing, which has not been scheduled, could clear the path for the groundbreaking face-to-face meeting with Miss Rice and North Korean Foreign Minister Pak Ui-chun.

Stressing that no firm dates have been set, Mr. Hill said an October gathering of the six foreign ministers “sounds reasonable.”

The meeting would be a coup for the isolated Stalinist state, which has demanded the United States drop it from a list of state sponsors of terrorism and normalize relations in return for Pyongyang’s pledge to give up its suspected nuclear programs.

Mr. Hill said his prime objective in the Geneva meetings starting Saturday will be to discuss the next steps North Korea must take to disclose and disable all its nuclear facilities, as set forth in the Feb. 13 agreement.

Despite significant delays in implementing the accord in the spring and early summer, the U.S. diplomat said, he still hoped a deal could be reached by the end of this year, leading to an “endgame” next year in which North Korea fulfills a pledge to abandon its nuclear programs entirely.

North Korea has shuttered, but not permanently disabled, the Yongbyon facility. U.S. critics of the nuclear deal express skepticism that Pyongyang will fully disclose its various nuclear programs, which are thought to include both plutonium and uranium research sites for making nuclear bombs.