WASHINGTON -- U.S. officials expressed skepticism Wednesday that North Korea would fulfill a pledge to provide a complete list of its nuclear programs as American diplomats prepared to visit Asia for talks.
North Korea failed to meet a year-end deadline on the nuclear declaration under an aid-for-disarmament deal, and White House press secretary Dana Perino said "it is only appropriate that we would be skeptical. This is a very closed society that has had a secret program that's been ongoing."
The U.S. wants the North Korean declaration to address a suspected secret uranium enrichment program. That is an important sticking point that touched off the latest nuclear standoff, in late 2002.
"We don't have any indication that they will not provide" a declaration, Perino said. "But they missed the deadline and we are waiting to hear from them."
Christopher Hill, the chief U.S. envoy at international nuclear talks, will travel to Asia at the end of this week, and deputy secretary of state John Negroponte plans a trip to the region in the middle of this month, U.S. officials said. The State Department did not disclose Hill's itinerary or say if he would meet with North Korean officials.
North Korea promised last February that it would abandon its nuclear ambitions in return for energy aid and political concessions. In October, it pledged to disable its nuclear facilities and declare its programs by the end of the year in return for the equivalent of 1 million tons of oil.
The North shut down its sole functioning atomic reactor in July and began to disable it and other facilities under watch of U.S. experts in November.
North Korea said a New Year's message Tuesday that the U.S. should scrap its "hostile" policies toward the communist nation. The statement did not mention the missed deadline.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack played down the missed deadlines, saying the U.S. would hold North Korea to its pledges.
"We're going to keep hammering away at it. We're not lowering the bar," McCormack said Wednesday. "North Korea has to come out with a full and complete declaration."
McCormack told reporters that the disarmament process is moving forward. "Sometimes the reason why it moves a little bit more slowly than we would have hoped is because we're doing new things and we're doing hard things," he said.
Diplomats had said for weeks that North Korea probably would miss the year-end deadline because a central technical step -- removing fuel rods from the reactor -- could take months.
On the Net:
State Department background on North Korea: http://www.state.gov/p/eap/ci/kn