A top US nuclear envoy, just returned from a rare visit to North Korea, said on Friday that Pyongyang was ready to promptly disable its nuclear reactor and live up to pledges it made in a February disarmament agreement.
Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, the highest-ranking State Department official to visit the reclusive state in nearly five years, said talks during his some-24-hour surprise trip to Pyongyang were detailed and positive.
"The DPRK indicated that they are prepared, promptly, to shut down the Yongbyon facility as called for in the February agreement," Hill told a news conference in Seoul.
The Democratic People's Republic of Korea, the communist state's full name, has long sought direct contact with Washington.
The Soviet-era Yongbyon reactor the North's source for weapons-grade plutonium and nearby reprocessing facility are at the heart of its nuclear arms programme.
"They also said that they are prepared to disable the Yongbyon facility as called for in the February agreement," Hill said of the deal reached among the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the United States.
However, a North Korean diplomat in Vienna has raised the prospect of further delays to implementing the February 13 disarmament-for-aid deal, saying an impasse over North Korean funds frozen in a Macau bank had still not been resolved.
Hill met North Korea's Foreign Minister, Pak Ui-chun, and its nuclear negotiator, Kim Kye-gwan, but said he did not seek a meeting with supreme leader Kim Jong-il.
Washington said Hill's trip to Pyongyang was meant to test "the proposition that North Korea has made that strategic decision to dismantle and give up their nuclear programmes".
At the last high-level visit of a state department official, in 2002, envoy James Kelly confronted the North with evidence Washington said pointed to a covert uranium enrichment programme.
The crisis following that confrontation led Pyongyang to expel UN nuclear inspectors and culminated in the communist state's first nuclear test last October.
North Korea said last weekend it would re-admit inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), as required under the February accord.
That followed signs that most of the $25 million in North Korean funds frozen in a Macau bank for nearly two years for suspected links to illicit activity by Pyongyang was making its way back to the North.
But a North Korean diplomat in Vienna, home of the IAEA, said Pyongyang had yet to receive the money and Pyongyang was not ready to sign off on the trip.
Russia now believed the funds would arrive in one of its banks later on Friday, Itar-Tass quoted deputy foreign minister Alexander Losyukov as saying.
The New York Times reported that the Bush administration was considering authorising Hill to offer to buy nuclear equipment that the secretive state purchased from Pakistan to enrich uranium into nuclear bomb-grade material.
It was not clear whether Hill had made the offer during his visit, it said.
Hill said he had nothing to substantiate the report or whether he had broached the topic of uranium enrichment.
"I don't want to go into specific elements of our discussions except to say we of course did discuss the need to have a comprehensive list of all nuclear programmes, and I would just say all means all," Hill said.
Hill, who arrived in South Korea from Pyongyang, is next scheduled to go to Tokyo to brief officials there.