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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

U.S. to Ply North with Talks, Fuel Aid

ULAN BATOR, Mongolia - Talks and fuel aid aimed at coaxing North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons program could move ahead in coming weeks, the U.S. nuclear envoy said on Sunday, welcoming Pyongyang's invitation to UN inspectors.

The chief American negotiator in six-nation nuclear talks, Assistant Secretary of State Chris Hill, told reporters in the Mongolian capital that North Korea's invitation to the United Nations' atomic watchdog to send a delegation to Pyongyang opened the way to fresh momentum in the negotiations.

"It is a welcome step. It's got to be followed by a number of other steps. But it is certainly a step without which we would not be able to make progress," Hill said.

He said U.S. diplomats in New York had spoken with North Korean officials and he expected more discussions between them on Sunday.

North Korea's state news agency, KCNA, said late on Saturday the communist country had invited a working-level delegation of the International Atomic Energy Agency to visit.

KCNA said Pyongyang's atomic energy department had written to the Vienna-based IAEA about holding discussions for verifying and monitoring "the suspension of the operations of nuclear facilities."

Hill said he did not know when the IAEA officials would reach North Korea. "I would assume very quickly," he said.

IAEA spokeswoman Melissa Fleming confirmed it had received the invitation and said the organization would decide next steps on Monday, Kyodo news agency reported.

South Korea's Foreign Ministry had no immediate official comment on the KCNA announcement, but a ministry official told Reuters that Seoul was pleased by the North's announcement.

"We welcome North Korea's move," said the official, who declined to be named. "We'll watch the progress to take corresponding steps [on our side]."

Hill said South Korea's foreign minister had told him Seoul was preparing to send fuel oil aid to the impoverished North as part of a nascent disarmament deal reached in February.

Hill said a tanker was being contracted to transport the oil. "They will be putting out the order for the fuel on Monday so I think we're talking about a couple of weeks."

Pyongyang's action followed the release of North Korean funds blocked in Macau for almost two years. Pyongyang's insistence that the money be freed had stalled international efforts to end the North's nuclear program.