Tentative accord reached on first steps toward North Korean nuclear disarmament

Monday, February 12th 2007, 6:17 am
By: News On 6

BEIJING (AP) _ Six countries reached a tentative agreement Tuesday on initial steps toward North Korea's nuclear disarmament that could usher in the first concrete progress after more than three years of talks marked by delays, deadlock and the communist country's first nuclear test explosion.

The U.S. envoy to the talks, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, emerged in the early morning hours of Tuesday looking weary after a marathon 16-hour negotiating session and announced that a tentative deal had been struck at the latest round of six-party talks on the North's nuclear program.

The draft agreement contained commitments on disarmament and energy assistance along with ``initial actions'' to be taken by certain deadlines, Hill said. Working groups will be set up, hopefully in a month, laying out a framework for dealing with regional tensions, he added.

Later Tuesday, after a break of several hours, Hill said that the pact had U.S. government support. ``Yes, we've approved it. To the best of my knowledge we've approved it,'' he told reporters.

Hill added that the North Koreans had seen the same text. The Chinese said the North Koreans ``went over every word of it,'' he said.

The envoy declined to give further details of the draft and said the parties to the talks will meet again later in the day.

The agreement could herald the first step toward disarmament since the talks began in 2003. The process reached its lowest point in October when North Korea conducted its first nuclear test explosion, alarming the world and triggering U.N. sanctions.

In the last few days, the talks had appeared to be on the verge of foundering and envoys made clear that their frustration was increasing and their patience growing thin. The current round was to conclude on Monday but as they progressed toward a deal, negotiators extended it late into the night and then into the early hours of Tuesday.

Hill said the draft agreement still must be reviewed by the home governments of the six countries at the talks, but he was upbeat about it. He said he had consulted ``many times'' with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

``We feel it's an excellent draft, I don't think we're the problem,'' he said.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe welcomed the progress but urged North Korea to make further efforts toward denuclearization.

``We are closely watching the development to make sure North Korea makes the right decision toward nuclear abandonment,'' Abe told a Parliamentary committee session Tuesday morning.

North Korea did not immediately make any public comment, but South Korea's envoy Chun Yung-woo said he believed the proposal would be acceptable to Pyongyang.

``I am looking forward to hearing good news today. I hope it will be a good day for all of us,'' he told reporters before the start of Tuesday's meeting. He added that ``no country had raised an objection to the principle'' that the costs of the energy aid should be evenly shared.

Russia was more noncommittal. Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Losyukov said there were ``many questions regarding details,'' Russia's Itar-Tass news agency reported.

The North apparently lowered its initial high demands for energy assistance.

South Korea's Yonhap news agency, citing diplomatic sources, reported the agreement included North Korea's commitment to ``disable'' its main nuclear reactor within 60 days. In return, other countries would provide 500,000 tons of heavy oil and other energy and humanitarian assistance equivalent to that amount.

In September 2005, North Korea was promised energy aid and security guarantees in exchange for a pledge to abandon its nuclear programs. But talks on implementing that agreement snarled on other issues and that plan went nowhere.

Hill has repeatedly said he hoped a resolution would help improve stability in a region filled with bitter historical disputes. The two Koreas remain technically at war since their 1950-53 conflict ended in a cease-fire that has never been replaced by a peace treaty.

``We're trying to do more than just do denuclearization for energy,'' Hill said. ``We're trying to address some of the underlying problems.''

Though he did not provide specifics, North Korea has demanded improved relations with the United States. Japan and North Korea remain fiercely antagonistic in part because of North Korea's acknowledged but unresolved abductions of Japanese citizens.

John Bolton, the former U.S. ambassador to the U.N., harshly criticized the deal and urged President Bush to reject it, saying it made the U.S. look weak.

``I am very disturbed by this deal,'' he told CNN. ``It sends exactly the wrong signal to would-be proliferators around the world: 'If we hold out long enough, wear down the State Department negotiators, eventually you get rewarded,' in this case with massive shipments of heavy fuel oil for doing only partially what needs to be done'' to dismantle the nuclear program.

``I think this deal with North Korea undercuts the sanctions resolution with respect to them, and I think the Iranians have only to follow the same example.'' The current talks began Thursday on a promising note after the United States and North Korea held an unusual meeting last month in Germany and signaled a willingness to compromise.

But negotiations quickly became mired on the issue of how much energy aid the impoverished and isolated communist country would get as an inducement for initial steps toward disarmament.

``It's always 3 yards, 3 yards, 3 yards, and it's always fourth and one. Then you make a first down and do 3 more yards,'' Hill said early Tuesday, using a football metaphor. ``It's painful.''

During the days of arduous negotiations, he said ``everybody has had to make some changes to narrow the differences.''

Some delegates at the talks _ which also include China, Russia and South Korea _ had called North Korea's demands for energy excessive.

South Korean and Japanese media reports gave varying accounts of how much energy North Korea was demanding, including up to 2 million kilowatts of electricity or 2 million tons of heavy fuel oil.

Under a 1994 U.S.-North Korea disarmament agreement, the North was to receive 500,000 tons of fuel oil a year before construction was completed of two nuclear reactors that would be able to generate 2 million kilowatts of electricity.

That deal fell apart in late 2002 when the U.S. accused the North of conducting a secret uranium enrichment program, sparking the latest nuclear crisis.