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North Korea can scrap nuclear arms in '08 - U.S. envoy

SEOUL (Reuters) - A top U.S. nuclear envoy, who met South Korea's president-elect on Thursday, said it was possible to end North Korea's nuclear arms programme this year despite Pyongyang missing a deadline in a disarmament deal.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill also extended an invitation for Lee Myung-bak, who takes office on Feb. 25, to visit Washington. The former Seoul mayor won a landslide victory on Dec. 19.

"There is no reason why we cannot finish the job in '08," Hill told reporters after meeting Lee.

U.S. nuclear envoy Christopher Hill speaks at a news conference in Incheon airport in Incheon before his departure to China, January 10, 2008. (REUTERS/Han Jae-Ho)

North Korea missed an end-2007 deadline set in a six-way deal to give a full accounting of its nuclear arms programme and answer U.S. suspicions of having a secret programme to enrich uranium for weapons.

"Throughout the six-party process, we have had these bumps in the road. We have had these missed deadlines but that ultimately we have been able to continue with the progress," Hill said.

If energy-starved North Korea makes the nuclear declaration, it could receive 1 million tonnes of heavy fuel oil or equivalent aid and removal from a U.S. terrorism blacklist.

Lee, a conservative who was a former CEO in the Hyundai Group, has pledged to work more closely with the United States on ending the North's atomic ambitions, which analysts said could bode well for relations between the allies.

Outgoing President Roh Moo-hyun at times made statements critical of Washington when he felt the Bush administration was taking too tough a stand on North Korea.

Hill, who arrived in Seoul from Tokyo, on Thursday departed for Beijing, which has hosted the disarmament talks also involving the two Koreas, Japan, Russia and the United States.

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