BEIJING North Korea's efforts to disable its plutonium-producing reactor by year's end are going as scheduled, the top U.S. nuclear envoy said Wednesday, but differences remain over the nuclear programs the regime will declare.
Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill spent three days in North Korea, where he held meetings with his counterpart, Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye Gwan, and visited the Yongbyon nuclear complex, becoming the highest-level American official to go there.
"The disablement activities are going well and on schedule," Hill told reporters before leaving Pyongyang and heading to Beijing. "I'm satisfied with the results."
During talks with Kim, Hill said he discussed a requirement under a February deal with the United States and four other nations that North Korea declare all its nuclear programs by year's end. That declaration will serve as a map of all of Pyongyang's nuclear programs that Washington hopes can be dismantled by the end of 2008.
At a briefing after he arrived in Beijing, Hill said the end-of-December deadline should be met even though there were some issues still to be resolved.
"There are definitely some differences," Hill said, refusing to give any details, but he added that "the atmosphere was very cooperative."
"We wanted to make sure that they also include all the facilities, materials and programs that the DPRK has had in the nuclear area in these many years that its had these nuclear ambitions," Hill said. DPRK stands for Democratic People's Republic of Korea, the North's official name.
"It is important that the declaration, even as a first draft, should be complete and correct," he said.
In addition to its known plutonium program, North Korea is also believed to be secretly developing a uranium enrichment program. Either material can be used to make bombs.
North Korea began disabling the reactor, which was shut down in July, and two other facilities last month under the watch of U.S. experts. It has promised to complete the process by the end of December but South Korean nuclear envoy Chun Yung-woo said last week it would take longer to remove about 8,000 spent fuel rods from the reactor.
The disablement, which will make the reactor difficult to restart, is the biggest step the communist nation has taken to scale back its nuclear programs since 2003, when six-nation negotiations aimed at ending the North's nuclear ambitions began. Participants are the two Koreas, the U.S., China, Japan and Russia.
Under the February agreement, North Korea has been promised the equivalent of 1 million tons of fuel oil and political concessions for disarming, and recently agreed to receive half of the economic aid in energy-related equipment.
Hill said the North Koreans in the Yongbyon complex, north of Pyongyang, appeared to be cooperating with the Americans and he believed the disablement would be finished on time.
"We're not looking for some sort of cliffhanger," he said. "What we want to see is that this is going on as quickly as possible and as safely as possible and we are very much convinced that that is the case."
Pyongyang defiantly conducted its first nuclear test in October 2006, prompting international condemnation and sanctions. Experts estimate the North has enough weapons-grade plutonium to make about a dozen bombs.
The U.S. envoy also toured Pyongyang and rode a subway with other members of his delegation, including Sung Kim, the State Department's top Korea expert.
Hill visited North Korea once before in June, becoming the first high-level U.S. official to visit the secretive country in more than four years.
He is scheduled to meet Wu Dawei, the Chinese nuclear envoy, on Thursday. On Friday, Hill said he hoped to stop in Tokyo to brief Japan's representative before heading back to Washington.