SEOUL, South Korea -- The chief U.S. nuclear envoy, returning from the first visit to North Korea by a ranking U.S. official in five years, said yesterday that Pyongyang had assured him it was ready to shut down its main nuclear reactor and would ultimately disable it.
In the course of a two-day trip, Christopher R. Hill, the assistant secretary of state for East Asian affairs, met with his counterpart, Kim Key Gwan, and Foreign Minister Pak Ui Chun. But he said he did not seek a meeting with Kim Jong Il, the supreme leader.
That North Korea invited Hill suggested that it was ready to resume the stalled six-nation talks on ending its nuclear program.
By dispatching Hill to Pyongyang, Washington demonstrated its willingness to treat North Korea as a serious partner in bilateral negotiations, a status it has craved but had often been denied by the Bush administration.
Under an agreement reached in February, North Korea agreed to shut down its main nuclear reactor at Yongbyon after the return of $25 million in funds that had been frozen after Washington said they came from various economic crimes and trade in missiles and nuclear equipment.
At a news conference yesterday, Hill said the North Koreans "indicated that they are prepared, promptly, to shut down" the reactor and "also said they are prepared to disable the Yongbyon facility."
Despite the palpable optimism surrounding Hill's visit, North Korea is a long way from giving up its full stockpile of nuclear weapons. To date, the government has admitted only that it has produced plutonium for weapons at Yongbyon.
But the Bush administration suspects it has purchased equipment for enriching uranium, opening a second pathway to making bombs. North Korea has denied having such technology.
"I am coming away from this two-day set of meetings buoyed by the sense that we are going to be able to achieve our full objectives, that is, the complete denuclearization," Hill said. "But we are also burdened by the realization of the fact that we are going to have to spend a great deal of time, a great deal of effort and a lot of work in achieving these."
It was unclear how far Hill went in demanding that North Korea disclose whether it has a second, covert program of enriching uranium. "We discussed the need to have a complete list of all nuclear weapons programs," Hill said, "and I would just say that all means all."
During the last high-level visit of a U.S. official, in 2002, Hill's predecessor, James Kelly, confronted the North with evidence that Washington said pointed to a uranium enrichment program.
In the ensuing confrontation, North Korea expelled U.N. nuclear inspectors, restarted the Yongbyon reactor and produced more plutonium. It conducted its first nuclear test last October.
In the six-nation talks in February in Beijing, North Korea promised to shut down the Yongbyon reactor by mid-April. To secure that deal, Washington had to agree to the release of the $25 million. Hill's visit came shortly after the money was released to North Korea, which responded by inviting back the U.N. inspectors, who are expected in North Korea on Tuesday.