Tokyo, Sep 26: Top US nuclear negotiator Christopher Hill today said North Korea could move ahead to ''disable'' its nuclear arms programmes by the end of this year.
Hill, assistant secretary of state for East Asia and Pacific affairs, made the remarks ahead of a new round of six-party talks involving the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the United States, which are scheduled to begin in Beijing tomorrow.
Under a February. 13 agreement, North Korea must disable its nuclear facilities and give a complete declaration of all its nuclear programmes. In return, it is to receive 950,000 tonnes of heavy fuel or the equivalent.
''We can be successful by the end of this year in getting disablement and full declaration, then we can move on to what I hope is the final phase next year, which is the complete denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula,'' Hill told reporters in Tokyo.
North Korea shut down and sealed its Soviet-era Yongbyon nuclear plant and allowed UN atomic energy monitors back to the site in July, following the February. 13 six-party deal.
In return, Pyongyang has received shiploads of heavy fuel oil and held bilateral talks with the United States that could bring the impoverished fortress state out of diplomatic isolation.
''It is a very important stage. Of course, the last stage is the elimination of all this programme. But I think this will really set the stage for the last stage,'' Hill said after meeting his Japanese counterpart, Kenichiro Sasae.
''We are advancing steadily towards our goal of denuclearising the Korean peninsula,'' Sasae, standing next to Hill, said.
On Monday, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice hinted that North Korea could be dropped from a US terrorism blacklist before fully accounting for the Japanese citizens it abducted in the 1970s and 1980s, a move that could upset Japan.
But Hill did not make it clear whether Washington would move ahead to remove North Korea from the blacklist.
''It think the abduction issue is very important to Japan, a centre-piece of the bilateral talks that Japan has,'' Hill said.
''I don't think we are going to be able to achieve our goals in this entire process unless we have some real progress in the Japan-DPRK relationship.'' Sasae said Hill had told him that Washington would not strike a deal with North Korea at the expense of Japan-US relations.
The fate of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea decades ago is a highly emotive issue in Japan.
North Korea admitted in 2002 that its agents had abducted 13 Japanese, sparking outrage in Japan.
Five of them were repatriated that same year, but Pyongyang says the other eight are dead. Tokyo wants more information about the eight and four others it says were also kidnapped, and wants any survivors sent home.
A failure to improve ties could spoil the six-party agreement because Tokyo is reluctant to give large-scale aid to Pyongyang in return for abandoning its nuclear ambitions.