WASHINGTON -- US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice departed Washington Monday en route to talks in Asia that US officials hope will result in a major milestone in North Korea's nuclear disarmament.
Rice, who left for an international conference in Berlin Tuesday aimed at bolstering Palestinian civil security, will travel to Japan and South Korea before wrapping up her Asia tour on June 30 in China.
During her stopover in Beijing, US officials see a chance for North Korea to hand over a long-awaited declaration of its past nuclear activities.
The accounting must be submitted to China, which chairs the disarmament negotiations that also involve the United States, Russia, and Japan as well as South and North Korea.
The White House said Monday it expected North Korea to submit the long-awaited accounting of its nuclear programs on Thursday, but warned against expecting any immediate changes in US policy.
"Let's take a look at the declaration as we get it and then I'll tell you what the next steps are," said spokeswoman Dana Perino, adding that Washington would have to study the declaration before taking possible steps like removing Pyongyang from a US list of terrorism sponsors.
Rice flies to Japan on Thursday for the Group of Eight (G8) foreign ministers meeting, before heading to South Korea on June 28 and China on June 29, US officials say. In China, Rice will become the highest-ranking US official to visit Chengdu, an area ravaged by a massive earthquake on May 12, officials in Washington said.
Diplomatic sources in Beijing told the Japanese agency Kyodo News that the North Korea declaration, a key part of a nuclear disarmament deal, would be handed to Chinese negotiators on Thursday.
In a symbolic gesture following the handover, the North are then to blow up the cooling tower at its main Yongbyon nuclear complex, possibly on June 27 or 28. But it was demanding cash in return, according to a South Korean foreign ministry official quoted by Yonhap.
After the declaration, US President George W. Bush is to formally inform Congress of plans to remove North Korea from a list of state sponsors of terrorism and waive penalizing the regime under the US Trading with the Enemy Act, Rice said.
In return for abandoning the atomic programs, the North also would receive energy aid, the establishment of diplomatic relations with Washington and a peace treaty formally ending the Korean war five decade ago.
South Korea's Yonhap news agency, quoting diplomatic sources, has said Pyongyang will submit the nuclear declaration around Thursday.
Rice is due to leave Japan for South Korea on Saturday. US officials said Rice has not planned a stopover in North Korea during her tour, but has not ruled out meeting a senior North Korean official while in Beijing.
North Korea, which staged a nuclear test in October 2006, is disabling its plutonium-producing reactor and other plants under a six-party deal reached last year.
But disputes over the promised declaration due 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.
While US officials are optimistic about a breakthrough, they injected a note of caution.
"One has to remain fairly skeptical in this process as we move forward," State Department deputy spokesman Tom Casey said last week.