Washington, Sep 15: The lead US negotiator with North Korea said he expected to attend six-party talks on ending Pyongyang's atomic programs next week despite reports Syria might have received North Korean nuclear aid.
US Assistant Secretary of State Chris Hill declined to confirm US media reports that North Korea may be cooperating on a nuclear facility in Syria but said they underscored the need for Pyongyang to give up its nuclear programs.
Hill said he would head to Asia next week for a round of consultations and for six-party talks in Beijing gathering officials from the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the United States that he expects to begin at mid-week.
The Washington Post, citing unnamed sources, on Thursday reported that intelligence gathered over the past six months had led some US officials to believe Syria was receiving help from North Korea on some sort of nuclear facility.
It said the intelligence, including dramatic satellite imagery, led some US officials to believe the facility could be used to produce material for nuclear weapons. The State Department has declined comment on the report.
The reports have angered conservatives who believe North Korea cannot be trusted to keep its word and that the six-party talks - which are based on North Korea giving up its nuclear programs for aid and other incentives - are bound to fail.
''In terms of the effect of these reports on what we are doing, I mean the reason we have the six-party process and the reason we have put together a number of pretty serious countries in this process is to make sure that the North Koreans get out of the nuclear business,'' Hill told reporters.
''It does not change the goal that we are aiming for, and our concerns about proliferation have always been a part of the six-party process and they will continue to be,'' he added.
Under a six-party agreement reached in February, North Korea agreed to disable all its nuclear facilities and to provide a complete declaration of all its nuclear programs.
Hill said US, Russian and Chinese nuclear experts were able to inspect all the sites they wished to at North Korea's Yongbyon nuclear complex and said they had discussed in detail how North Korea might disable the nuclear site.
''On the basis of their report to the six parties, we would then try in the six parties to try to draw up a sort of a work plan which would get us to the end of the calendar year '07 and would result in the full declaration of their nuclear programs and their disablement of nuclear programs,'' he said.
Hill said that the six parties may be getting closer to holding a ministerial meeting that North Korea has sought, and that this meeting could lead toward the next stage of talks on getting North Korea to give up nuclear weapons.
''I think we are ready pretty soon (for the ministerial),'' he said, saying such a meeting would be a sign of momentum.
At such a gathering, the ministers would review what had happened and look ahead to the next phase, such as northeast Asia security mechanisms and what would be the final stage -- the abandonment of North Korea's fissile material.
''At the end of the day, what we are interested in is nuclear weapons programs,'' he said.