The top U.S. negotiator on North Korea's nuclear program said Thursday he hopes six nations meeting in China next week will be able to take the first concrete steps toward eventual dismantling of the communist nation's nuclear weapons.

The comments by Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill could mean that North Korea might begin the process of denuclearization while receiving economic benefits from other countries participating in the talks.

This would be a significant breakthrough for a bargaining process that has achieved little since it began in August 2003.

Meeting with reporters on the eve of his departure for South Korea, Hill declined to say what specific actions he expects when the six nations convene for their sixth round of talks in 3 1/2 years. Participants are the United States, the two Koreas, China, Japan and Russia.

"We will not achieve full denuclearization but we hope get a substantial start," Hill said.

A December meeting of the six made little headway but the State Department has been hinting for days that the next round should be different.