US team to push North Korea nuclear disabling

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BEIJING, Oct 31 (Reuters) The United States and North Korea discussed steps today to disable a key nuclear complex in the North, as a team of US experts prepares to head to the isolated country to push forward the process.

The team is due to reach Pyongyang on Thursday to oversee disabling the Yongbyon nuclear reactor, which can make plutonium for nuclear bombs.

''It was a useful exchange of information. It was not a negotiation,'' US envoy Christopher Hill told reporters of his meeting with his North Korean counterpart, Kim Kye-gwan. ''We're at a phase now where we're talking a lot about nuts and bolts.'' This will be the second visit to North Korea by US nuclear experts within a month, as Washington pushes Pyongyang to see through a deal that aims for major disarmament steps in the next 60 days.

Kim told reporters that North Korea would ''seriously implement'' the agreement, Japan's Kyodo news agency reported.

''At this stage, there are no major differences in opinion,'' Kyodo quoted Kim as saying.

Following lengthy six-party talks in Beijing involving North and South Korea, the United States, Japan, Russia and China, Pyongyang agreed that by the end of 2007 it would have disabled its main nuclear facilities, a term meaning crippling the plants, but short of outright destruction.

North Korea also agreed to fully disclose all its atomic activities by the end of the year, and Hill said the process of making such a declaration should begin within the next two weeks.

Hill also met Chinese officials, including Beijing's envoy to the talks, Wu Dawei, to discuss preparations for a planned meeting of foreign ministers of the six countries involved.

In exchange for these steps, the impoverished North will receive 1 million tonnes of heavy fuel oil or equivalent aid. The United States will also move towards taking North Korea off a US terrorism blacklist.

At talks between the two Koreas yesterday, parties agreed that the equivalent of half the fuel oil would be supplied in materials to rebuild power plants and other facilities.

The moves follow a breakthrough February deal under which North Korea, which tested a nuclear device last year in defiance of international warnings, is to shut down its Yongbyon plant and admit UN nuclear monitors.

Despite the positive signs, there are still several steps ahead.

''We do have in mind in the beginning of '08 another phase, and that is the final, irreversible dismantling of these facilities and very importantly the abandonment of the weaponised plutonium,'' Hill said.

He also said the United States wanted to begin working-level talks with North Korea on financial issues.

Currently, North Korea is largely shut out of the international financial system due to US charges that it is engaged in counterfeiting and money-laundering.

REUTERS ARB AS1929

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