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N. Korea talks reach a tentative accord

Deal would halt nuclear weapons

Assistant Secretary of State Christopher R. Hill said the United States feels that "it's an excellent draft." (Greg Baker/Associated Press/File)

BEIJING -- Envoys from six nations reached a tentative agreement early today on the first steps toward North Korea's nuclear disarmament, a potential breakthrough in talks that have faltered repeatedly since 2003.

The chief US negotiator, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher R. Hill, qualified the draft accord as "excellent" but declined to provide details. He said it was being submitted to all six governments and, pending their formal approval, would be ratified at a meeting scheduled for today in Beijing.

"We would like to think that we can all agree on this," Hill said at a briefing. "We feel it is an excellent draft, so I don't think we would be the problem."

A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, Qin Gang, also suggested the tentative agreement would probably gain formal approval by the six governments, including North Korea. He cited "extraordinarily strenuous efforts" in negotiations that lasted through the night, and said the delegates would gather again later today "to confirm the progress we have made."

Some observers expressed caution, noting that North Korea has proved unpredictable in the past, and that any deal would have to be approved by the communist country's leader, Kim Jong Il.

The tentative agreement lays out the first concrete steps that would put into practice an accord reached in September 2005, in which Pyongyang pledged to dismantle its entire nuclear program. According to diplomats involved in five days of arduous talks here, the opening move would be for North Korea to close down its nuclear reactor at Yongbyon and readmit international nuclear inspectors in exchange for energy aid.

In that regard, the accord is expected to resemble an earlier bargain with North Korea, the Agreed Framework reached in 1994 during the Clinton administration but renounced eight years later during the Bush administration. Under that deal, North Korea pledged to freeze and eventually dismantle its reactor in return for 500,000 tons a year of heavy fuel oil.

The New York Times reported that the draft called for the reactor to be permanently disabled within 60 days. The newspaper said the United States, South Korea, and China would provide aid under the deal.

Hill declined to specify how much aid North Korea would receive -- it had demanded large quantities of heavy fuel oil, reportedly up to 2 million tons -- or to detail the schedule that would presumably tie fuel deliveries to closure of the Yongbyon reactor and subsequent steps.

The Chinese-sponsored negotiations, including North and South Korea, Japan, Russia, China, and the United States, had faltered for several days over what Hill had described as a North Korean effort to lock in large amounts of energy aid without binding itself to corresponding denuclearization steps.

The Chinese, as sponsors and hosts, worked intensively to prevent the talks from ending in failure, Hill said, resulting in the all-night series of meetings. Beijing was eager to avoid a repeat of the previous round of talks, in December, which ended in stalemate after North Korea refused to negotiate until a US-North Korean banking dispute was resolved.

The chief Japanese envoy, Kenichiro Sasae, said the tentative agreement was the result of compromises from all six nations. But he added that it was too early to say whether Tokyo would give its final approval.

In addition to seeking an end to the North Korean nuclear threat, Japan has sought to have the talks embrace the issue of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korean agents and who remain unaccounted for. While sympathetic to the Japanese demand -- a strongly felt political issue in Tokyo -- others in the six-party talks have been eager to avoid letting it prevent progress on nuclear disarmament.

North Korea's senior nuclear negotiator, Kim Gye Gwan, signaled agreement with all the draft provisions, including fuel aid, according to Chun Yung Woo, the chief South Korean delegate. But the final word had not yet come from Pyongyang, he noted.

According to diplomats' descriptions of what was under discussion, the issue of North Korea's existing nuclear weapons and the plutonium fuel already produced at Yongbyon would be left for later phases of what is designed as a long-term denuclearization program.

US analysts have estimated North Korea has produced enough plutonium to make eight or 10 nuclear bombs.

Similarly, a US allegation that North Korea has started a uranium enrichment program to produce nuclear fuel would not be addressed in the initial agreement.

North Korea has maintained that it does not have such a program since the charge was leveled in 2002.

Based on the difficulty in moving from the 2005 agreement in principle to today's accord, those issues may generate long and complicated negotiations.

Moreover, they would force North Korean leaders to decide whether they are really willing to forsake the nuclear weapons they have devoted so many resources to developing.

Nevertheless, Hill said, reaching the agreement augured well for negotiations on the subsequent steps.

"I'm encouraged that we might be able to make a real step forward in this denuclearization issue," he said. A new round of talks on the next steps is likely next month, he added.

Since the negotiations began, in August 2003, they have been marked by long North Korean boycotts and repeated sessions of fruitless discussions.

When the September 2005 accord was reached -- and widely hailed as a breakthrough -- North Korea had a research program but no nuclear weapons. But it exploded a nuclear device last October and swiftly declared itself a nuclear power, giving the six-party negotiations a new complexion.