Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill will be the highest-level U.S. official to inspect ongoing work to disable the main nuclear reactor, a key milestone in the international bargain that North Korea made to eliminate its weapons in exchange for economic aid and other perks.
Hill was making the quick visit in between diplomatic meetings in neighboring Japan and South Korea, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe the previously unannounced plans. North Korea invited Hill for only his second visit as an end-of-the-year deadline nears for Pyongyang to declare the extent of its once-secret nuclear program.
Hill and other envoys are expected to meet separately with the North Koreans next week in what will likely be the six-nation international bargaining group's final session before the deadline. That session in Beijing has not yet been announced.
The last round of six-party talks was held in Beijing in late September. The sides issued an agreement in which North Korea promised to disable its closed Yongbyon nuclear reactor by the end of this year in exchange for economic aid and political concessions.
At the next meeting, North Korea is expected to lay out elements of a draft declaration detailing its nuclear programs.
The six parties North and South Korea, the U.S., China, Japan and Russia issued an agreement in early October in which North Korea promised to disable its closed Yongbyon nuclear reactor by the end of this year in exchange for economic aid and political concessions.
U.S. nuclear experts have been in North Korea since early this month to disable the reactor, which produced plutonium for bombs.
"The process to disable the North's nuclear facilities is under way," South Korean Foreign Minister Song Min-soon said. "The process is going well."
Hill became the first high-level U.S. official to visit the impoverished, secretive North in more than four years when he made a brief, surprise stop there in June. That visit followed resolution of a banking dispute that had held up progress toward disarmament for more than a year.
U.S. officials have said North Korea is cooperating with visiting experts to disable the weapons-making facilities, but there is skepticism in Congress and within the Bush administration that North Korea really will drop out of the nuclear club it joined last year with a successful underground nuclear test.
The test detonation in October 2006 was the culmination of decades of efforts to build the world's deadliest weapons. Experts estimate it has enough weapons-grade plutonium to make about a dozen bombs.
It is not clear how the North will address secret U.S. and Israeli intelligence findings that it was supporting an illicit nuclear effort in Syria earlier this year. Israel bombed a facility widely believed to have housed the illicit program but details of the raid and the Syrian program have remained largely secret.
Washington hopes future talks will yield an agreement for the North to dismantle the facility entirely, and also wants the nuclear bombs Pyongyang is believed to have built to be confiscated.