US hopeful as envoys gather for North Korea talks

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BEIJING, Sep 27 (Reuters) The US envoy was hopeful and his South Korean counterpart wary as delegates from six countries gathered today for talks aimed at dismantling North Korea's nuclear weapons programme.

Under an agreement reached on February 13, Pyongyang must disable its nuclear facilities and give a complete declaration of all its nuclear programmes. In return, the impoverished communist state will receive 950,000 tonnes of heavy fuel or the equivalent.

Top US negotiator Christopher Hill said he planned to hold talks with the North Koreans before the ''six-party'' talks begin at 1350 IST, in addition to his meeting with them on Wednesday.

''I wanted to follow up on some issues that we didn't get to last night and I wanted to do it in a more structured environment,'' he told reporters.

Asked if there were big differences between the two sides, he said: ''We had an expert team go there (North Korea). They came up with some ideas. You know, we'd like to do more. The DPRK (North Korea) likes to do less. We'll figure out a way through that.'' Hill, assistant secretary of state for East Asia and Pacific affairs, said on Wednesday that North Korea could move ahead to disable its nuclear arms programmes by the end of this year.

He said it was ''doable'' but warned of over-optimism.

The six-party talks involve the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the United States.

South Korea's top negotiator, Chun Yung-woo, said some hurdles were bound to emerge.

''There will be some unexpected difficulties in the next phase but the (South Korean) delegation will do its best to reach the goal of the talks,'' Xinhua news agency quoted Chun as saying yesterday.

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 fortress state out of diplomatic isolation.

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.

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 centrepiece of the bilateral talks that Japan has,'' Hill said in Tokyo yesterday. ''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.'' North Korea admitted in 2002 that its agents had abducted 13 Japanese, sparking outrage in Japan.

Reuters KK VP0705

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