US envoy Hill plans December North Korea trip

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TOKYO, Nov 28 (Reuters) The US envoy to talks on ending North Korea's nuclear arms programme will visit Pyongyang next week on a trip seen as key to clinching by year's end a deal that leads to the North's removal from a US terrorist blacklist.

Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill is to meet North Korean counterpart Kim Kye-gwan and possibly other officials in Pyongyang during his December 3-5 visit, State Department spokeswoman Nancy Beck said in Washington.

Hill will also travel to Yongbyon to observe the disablement of a nuclear reactor there, and meet US experts who aim to finish the job by the end of the year.

China said this week that countries seeking to push forward the disarmament pact would send a joint team to Yongbyon from yesterday to assess steps to cripple the nuclear complex.

''I just want to see how the disabling is going,'' Hill told reporters after arriving in Tokyo today for talks with his Japanese counterpart. ''From what I can gather from the reports, things are going well so I'd like to see it myself.'' ''We are trying to review this phase, to make sure that everything is done by year-end as planned, and then we want to have some discussions about what the next phase might look like,'' said Hill, who last visited Pyongyang in June.

Exchanges between the United States and North Korea have increased since North Korea agreed in February to a multinational deal to freeze and then roll back its nuclear arms programme in return for massive aid and better international standing.

North Korea closed down its main reactor in July under the February agreement.

In exchange for disabling its plutonium production facilities, the impoverished state will receive 1 million tons of heavy fuel oil or equivalent aid, while Washington will move towards taking North Korea off a US list of states that sponsor terrorism.

''This visit will be crucial for whether North Korea completes disablement and gives a full account of its nuclear programmes and the United States expresses by the end of the year its intent to take Pyongyang off the list,'' said Noriyuki Suzuki, chief analyst at Tokyo's Radiopress, which monitors North Korean media.

A round of six-party talks among North and South Korea, the United States, Japan, Russia and China is expected to take place in Beijing from December 6 to 8, but no official dates have been set.

REUTERS SW SSC1348

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