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US envoys to push for nuclear disarmament in Pyongyang

Two senior US envoys arrive in Pyongyang on Thursday to push for North Korea's nuclear disarmament. Disputes about the country's long-promised nuclear declaration have been blocking progress in six-party disarmament talks.

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Two senior US State Department officials arrived Wednesday in South Korea as part of a new diplomatic effort to persuade North Korea to come clean on its nuclear weapons programmes.

The department's Korea office director Sung Kim, who travelled on the same plane as Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte, is due Thursday to head by land to Pyongyang for his second trip in less than a month.

Negroponte is visiting South Korea and will go on to Japan and China for talks on the nuclear disarmament drive and other issues.

Kim, who made no comment to reporters, last visited the North some two weeks ago to discuss Pyongyang's long-promised nuclear declaration, and both sides reported progress.

Asked how Kim's visit would help the process, Negroponte told reporters: "This process of negotiation with respect to denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula continues, and this is another visit in the framework of those discussions."

The North, which staged a nuclear test in October 2006, is disabling its plutonium-producing reactor and other plants under a deal reached last year with the United States, China, Japan, Russia and South Korea.

But disputes over the declaration due on December 31 have blocked the start of the final phase of the process -- the permanent dismantling of the plants and the handover of all material.

The declaration is crucial to verifying that all material, including stockpiled plutonium which could be used for bomb-making, is accounted for.

In return for total denuclearisation, the impoverished Stalinist state would receive energy aid, a lifting of US sanctions, the establishment of diplomatic relations with Washington and a formal peace treaty.

In addition to the declared plutonium bomb-making operation, Washington said the declaration must clear up suspicions about an alleged secret uranium enrichment programme and about suspected involvement in building a nuclear plant in Syria.

The North denies both activities. Under a reported deal, it will merely "acknowledge" US concerns about the two issues in a confidential separate document to Washington.

The main declaration, to be given to talks' host China, would detail the plutonium operation.

The envoys are making their first trips to the region since Washington alleged two weeks ago that North Korea had helped Syria build the reactor, which Israeli warplanes destroyed last September.

Hopes of a breakthrough are rising in some quarters.

A senior South Korean official said last Friday he expects North Korea to deliver its declaration within two weeks, with six-party negotiations resuming soon afterwards.

The Washington Times has reported that Pyongyang has "tentatively agreed to give the United States thousands of records from its key Yongbyon nuclear reactor dating back to 1990."

The documents would complement the expected declaration, it said.

The State Department was cautious when asked Tuesday if the document may be handed over this month.

"We'd hope they produce a declaration in a short span of time. We are way past what was expected," said spokesman Sean McCormack. "We'll see if they meet their obligations."

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