US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said on Wednesday that North Korea would "soon" issue a declaration of all its nuclear weapons programs after having missed a deadline under a six-party deal.
Rice's prediction came as US envoy Christopher Hill was due to begin on Thursday a round of talks with Japanese, Chinese and South Korean officials on efforts to scrap North Korea's nuclear programs.
"North Korea will soon give its declaration of nuclear programs to China," Rice said in a speech in Washington.
After the declaration, President George W. Bush would formally inform Congress of plans to remove North Korea from a list of state sponsors of terrorism and waive penalizing the regime under the US Trading with the Enemy Act, the top US diplomat said.
"In the next 45 days after that, before those actions go into effect, we would continue to assess the level of North Korean cooperation in helping to verify the accuracy of its declaration," Rice said.
"If that cooperation is insufficient, we will respond accordingly," said Rice.
North Korea, 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 United States, China, Japan, Russia and South Korea.
But disputes over the promised declaration of its nuclear activities due December 31 have blocked the start of the final phase of the process -- the permanent dismantling of the plants and the handover of all material.
Rice, defending US policy towards North Korea in response to domestic right-wing critics, also said Washington would push for inspections to verify any disarmament claims by the regime.
But she acknowledged verifying North Korea's commitments posed difficulties.
"Verifying an agreement with North Korea will be a serious challenge. This is the most secretive and opaque regime in the entire world."
In return for abandoning the atomic programs, 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.
The North raised hopes it would hand over the declaration after giving the United States earlier this month thousands of documents of production records for the five-megawatt reactor and reprocessing plant in Yongbyon.
Rice said Wednesday the documents represented an "important step" that will help verify the declaration when it is eventually submitted.
Responding to conservatives who have accused her of caving in to North Korea -- including former UN ambassador John Bolton -- Rice sought to defend the administration's policy before the Heritage Foundation, a right-leaning think tank.
"It may very well be the case that North Korea does not want to give up its nuclear weapons and its programs. That is a very real possibility," she said. "But we and our partners should test it."
Rice said Washington had no illusions about the nature of North Korean regime but argued that offering a deal jointly with China and other powers had proved the most effective strategy.
"Diplomacy is not a synonym for talking. Diplomacy means structuring a set of incentives and disincentives that make it clear to states that changes in their behavior will be met with changes in ours."
She said US policy to North Korea as well as Iran was sending a clear signal to those trying to build or sell nuclear weapons that irresponsible behavior would be punished but disarmament would bring economic and diplomatic benefits.
"The United States has no permanent enemies," she said.
"We and our partners have offered North Korea a very clear choice of what its future can be but it is a choice only the North can make."
Rice also said the United States would not ignore human rights abuses in North Korea regardless of how the six-party talks progress.
"The United States will never be silent in our support of human rights. The non-negotiable demands of human dignity are not bargaining chips."
She touted the six-party approach backed by Bush as having helped improve relations among rival states in Northeast Asia.
"In contrast to where things stood in 2001, tensions among the major powers of Northeast Asia are now lower than at any time in recent memory."