Agreement with N. Korea possible, U.S. negotiator says


BEIJING --The chief American negotiator at talks to address North Korea's nuclear program said yesterday that the parties could reach a new agreement on rolling back the North's bomb-making effort this week but that the prospects for a meaningful breakthrough remained uncertain.

The chief negotiator, Christopher Hill, told reporters that the United States, North Korea and the four other countries participating in the Chinese-sponsored talks had begun discussing details of how to implement a 2005 draft agreement on ending the North's nuclear program and that the tenor of the often-tortuous discussions had improved.

"The discussions for us have been very useful," Hill said. "Certainly we are talking about much more than just agreeing on things on paper. We're discussing actual developments on the ground, and for that reason these discussions are not easy."

The negotiations are part of a series of Chinese-sponsored talks that have continued for more than three years and have failed to make tangible progress in slowing North Korea's nuclear weapons program.

On Oct. 9, Pyongyang exploded a nuclear device for the first time, prompting the United Nations Security Council to impose sanctions. After a frenzied round of Chinese diplomacy, North Korea agreed to return to the six-nation talks for the first time in more than a year.

The negotiations opened on an unpromising note Monday, when the senior North Korean negotiator, Kim Kye Gwan, declared that as a new nuclear power the country would only engage in "arms control" negotiations, implying that it had no intention of eliminating its nuclear program.

But during a series of one-on-one sessions Tuesday and yesterday, North Korea's attitude turned more pragmatic, Asian diplomats participating in the talks said, adding that concrete proposals for freezing the North's weapons program on the way to a broader accord were under discussion.

Many diplomatic analysts argue that North Korea is not likely to give up its decades-long quest to become a full nuclear power and that any negotiations are merely a stalling tactic or an attempt to foster good will from China, its main supplier of aid.

Others argue that Pyongyang may at some point prove willing to make concessions on its nuclear program in exchange for a big aid program to bail out its closed, ailing economy.

Hill said he was pleasantly surprised that the talks had moved beyond posturing and raised the possibility that they could produce an agreement before the current round breaks up late this week.

"To be frank, Monday was kind of a difficult day, and the idea that I'd still be here Wednesday night telling you it was useful to continue - I frankly didn't think I would be saying that," he said.

He said China, as the host and mediator, had begun drafting the text of an accord that would commit the parties to concrete steps involved in carrying out a vaguely worded 2005 agreement.

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