Deal offered at nuclear talks

Plan would give N. Korea generating station after it dismantles weapons


BEIJING - China proposed a new compromise solution to the North Korean nuclear standoff and gave participating countries one day to accept or reject the offer, but there were mixed signals yesterday on whether the United States and North Korea were prepared to come to terms.

Beijing drew up a new agreement that diplomats said promised North Korea the right to retain a peaceful nuclear energy program and to receive a new nuclear generating station at some point. The agreement also reflects American demands that any such steps occur only after North Korea dismantles its nuclear weapons, the diplomats said.

The new draft prompted a flurry of excitement in Beijing after three days of stalemate in the six-nation nuclear talks, but it was unclear whether North Korea and the United States had made much progress bridging their differences.

North Korea issued a strongly worded statement in which it insisted that it must receive a new light-water nuclear reactor before it abandons its nuclear weapons program, a sequence the United States has repeatedly dismissed as unacceptable.

"The U.S. is demanding that we give up our nuclear deterrent facilities first. I think this is such a naive request," the North Korea spokesman, Hyun Hak Bong, said, reading a prepared text. "Our response is: Don't even dream about it."

Hyun said North Korea requires nuclear weapons because it has to defend itself against the United States, which he said has targeted his country for a "pre-emptive strike."

Earlier in the day, after a series of meetings with the North Koreans and the Chinese, the chief American negotiator, Christopher Hill, sounded a more optimistic note. He suggested that China had pushed the North Koreans to soften their position. But he warned that the negotiations were so far inconclusive.

"At this point, I don't know where this will lead," Hill said. "We're still in business."

Hill declined to comment on the talks late yesterday after he spent the evening on the phone with Washington.

Diplomats said that China, the host of the talks, told all parties that they would have to vote up or down on a re-drafted communique that China circulated yesterday.

China has proposed four other compromises during this latest round of talks, but none has been accepted.

The United States accused North Korea of violating a previous agreement to end its nuclear program in 2002. Talks have been under way since 2003 to reach a new agreement, but so far they have failed to achieve even a broad statement of principles.

The main sticking point in this round involves North Korea's demand for a light-water reactor, which it says it needs to supply electricity. It has rejected a South Korean offer to distribute power across the border to North Korea instead, even though Seoul says this could double North Korea's electricity supplies in short order.

The North was promised a light-water reactor in a 1994 accord, now defunct. In the latest talks, it want to receive the reactor first, before dismantling its nuclear weapons.

The Russian delegate at the talks, Alexander Alexeyev, said the latest agreement has "compromise wording which could satisfy both sides" and he held out hope that an accord could be reached today.

It is unclear what will happen if this round of talks fails. Asian diplomats said the Chinese are eager to keep the talks alive, perhaps by declaring another recess and reconvening the negotiations in the near future. But the U.S. has said that the talks cannot go on indefinitely.

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