Washington, Oct 26: The US envoy to North Korean nuclear talks told Congress the North's uranium enrichment program no longer will be a threat by year's end, and said the diplomatic normalization Pyongyang expects will happen only after full denuclearization.
But US Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill declined to comment yesterday on reports that a suspected Syrian nuclear site targeted in an Israeli air strike last month was constructed with North Korean help.
''It is my professional judgment that by the end of this year, we will have a clarity on their uranium enrichment such that we can be assured that a highly enriched uranium program is no longer a threat to our country,'' he told subcommittees of the House of Representatives Foreign Relations Committee.
North Korea has pledged to disable its nuclear facilities and make a full declaration of past nuclear activities and its atomic inventory by the end of this year in exchange for energy aid and better relations with the United States.
Hill said the deal North Korea agreed to in February in talks with China, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the United States was structured to prevent Pyongyang from getting rewards before compliance.
''We have made it very clear we will not establish diplomatic relations until such time as North Korea is out of this nuclear business,'' he told the hearing.
Other steps the United States has agreed to take in the normalization process -- removing North Korea from a US terrorism blacklist and ending sanctions under the Trading with the Enemy Act -- would be taken on their merits under US law and not as a prize for denuclearization, Hill said.
Democratic and Republican lawmakers on the panel made clear their doubts about whether North Korea could be trusted to come clean on its nuclear activities and follow through on the denuclearization pledges.
''My fear is that we will settle for something less than hard decommission'' of the North's nuclear reactor, said Rep.
Brad Sherman, a California Democrat and chairman of the House Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation and Trade.
Sherman accused the Bush administration of soft-pedaling doubts about North Korea to achieve a lone diplomatic success amid what he said were failures in Iraq and Iran.
''What I can assure you is that we are not playing 'trust me,''' Hill said of the US dealings with North Korea. ''We cannot conclude this process without getting to the heart of any proliferation concerns.'' Indiana Republican Rep. Dan Burton demanded that Hill share more information with Congress on reports that the Syrian targets bombed last month by Israel were buildings under construction similar in design to a North Korean reactor.
Such nuclear cooperation, denied by Syria and North Korea, would violate Pyongyang's nonproliferation pledges and could kill congressional support for the deal.
''You guys over at State can't keep this from Congress,'' Burton said, noting that Congress is being asked to approve $106 million to pay for denuclearizing North Korea.
Hill told the panel he was unable to discuss national intelligence matters in an open hearing.