US eyes six-party NKorean nuclear talks in coming weeks

US envoy Christopher Hill downplays North Korean missile test.

Christopheer hill 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
Christopheer hill 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
The United States expects diplomats to start planning the shutdown of North Korea's nuclear facilities within the next two weeks despite a surprise missile test by the communist country, the chief US nuclear envoy said Wednesday. The short-range missile launch on Tuesday coincided with the resolution of a banking dispute that had held up nuclear negotiations for more than a year. But the launch was part of regular military exercises and not meant as a political provocation, US envoy Christopher Hill told reporters in Tokyo. "The North Korean army has these tests from time to time," he said. Hill said the focus now should be on making up for time lost during the financial standoff and closing down the North's reactor. U.N. nuclear inspectors were expected to arrive in North Korea next week to get the ball rolling. "We'll have a lot of work do and very little time to do it," Hill said. The next stage of the nuclear dispute will turn on dismantling the North's nuclear reactor and delivering badly needed fuel oil to the impoverished country in exchange. Bilateral talks to arrange the logistics should begin over the next two weeks, with a full six-party meeting of the top nuclear envoys resuming soon after July 4, Hill said. "We need to make sure the first phase is done, and we need to make sure that we have adequate time to prepare materials for" coming meetings, Hill said, after a morning conference with Japanese Vice Foreign Minister Shotaro Yachi. South Korea's Yonhap News Agency reported Wednesday that some of the countries participating in North Korea nuclear talks plan to convene an "unofficial meeting" in Beijing early next month. The meeting is likely to be held right after an International Atomic Energy Agency team visiting the North next week reaches an agreement with Pyongyang about the reactor shutdown, the report said citing an unidentified government source. China, South Korea and the US are likely to attend the meeting, with the participation by Japan and Russia not clear yet. Hill has been urging for quick action on the rest of the nuclear dispute, following the recent resolution of the banking standoff. About US$25 million (€19 million) in North Korean funds had been frozen in a Macau bank blacklisted by the United States over allegations of money-laundering and other financial crimes. For more than a year, North Korea had refused to dismantle its nuclear facilities until the money was freed, and the U.S. only recently approved the release to help end the standoff. Hill said Tuesday that the money had finally been deposited in a North Korean bank account and that the case was closed. Just hours later, South Korean officials said the North had fired a short-range missile into the sea between the Korean Peninsula and Japan. The launch followed a similar test last month, but South Korean officials said it would not impact talks. The measured response by North Korea's neighbors to both rounds of missile launches underlines the determined approach that parties have taken in trying to ease the impasse and push negotiations ahead. "There is no circumstantial evidence that the missile launch is having a negative impact on the six-way talks and the resolution of the nuclear issue," South Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman Cho Hee-yong told The Associated Press. Under a deal reached in Beijing with China, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the United States, North Korea pledged to shut down its Yongbyon reactor, its main processing facility, in exchange for energy and economic aid. Hill, on a regional tour to Beijing, Seoul and Tokyo, had said he hoped to see a shutdown "within weeks, not months." Russia's Interfax-China news agency cited an unidentified North Korean official on Monday as saying Pyongyang plans to shut down the reactor in the second half of July.