Story Highlights• U.S. envoy Christopher Hill expects reactor to be shut down within a few weeks
• Shutdown of Yongbyon reactor is "first step of many," Hill says
• Only after reactor is disabled can peace process begin, Hill says
From Elise Labott
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- If North Korea makes good on its promise to disable a nuclear reactor, Korean peninsula peace talks could be under way by the end of the year, said U.S. envoy to North Korea Christopher Hill.
"I think the next couple weeks are going to be a very important period for the six-party process," Hill told reporters Monday. He expects the reactor to be shut down within a few weeks.
Once the reactor is closed, envoys to the six-party talks -- from the two Koreas, the United States, China, Japan and Russia -- will meet in mid-July to discuss next steps, he said. Those would include additional economic assistance to North Korea and a full declaration of its nuclear program.
A ministerial meeting of the parties in East Asia would follow at the end of July, Hill said.
On Tuesday U.N. nuclear monitors were set to hold talks with officials in North Korea on how to verify the shutdown of its main nuclear reactor. (Full story)
Hill spent two days in Pyongyang last week meeting with North Korea's nuclear negotiator about its highly enriched uranium program and said the country reaffirmed its commitment to the nuclear disarmament agreement reached in February. Under the deal, North Korea would begin to close down its nuclear program in exchange for $300 million in energy and financial aid.
North Korea has to disable its reactor so that it "cannot be brought back online without an enormous repair bill," he said. "What we're looking for in terms of shutting down this reactor or shutting down this complex in Yongbyon is just a first step of many steps."
Once the reactor is disabled, a peace process involving the United States, China and the two Koreas could begin, he said. But a full normalization of relations with North Korea would not take place until there is "full de-nuclearization" on the Korean peninsula, he said.
Normalization also requires North Korea to abandon fissile material it has already produced, as well as all of its weapons and explosive devices, he said.
Hill is the most senior U.S. official to visit Pyongyang since 2002, when his predecessor, James Kelly, confronted the North Koreans with information the United States had about its covert uranium-enrichment program.
Paving the way for Hill's visit was the transfer of about $25 million from a bank in Macau, China, to a Russian bank where North Korea has an account. A delay in the transfer had kept the disarmament process in limbo for several months.
The funds were frozen in late 2005 at the request of the United States, which said some of the money came from illegal activities. The freeze was lifted as part of the deal aimed at North Korea's de-nuclearization.
U.S. envoy Christopher Hill says he hopes his trip to North Korea paved the way for more talks.