Oil debate paved way for pact

Envoy says hashing out details led to more comprehensive deal

February 14, 2007|By Mark Magnier | Mark Magnier,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BEIJING -- A major snag in the negotiations to halt and subsequently dismantle North Korea's nuclear program occurred early on in the six days of talks that resulted in an ambitious agreement yesterday.

Washington wanted to wait until later to hash out details on how much energy the impoverished North would receive in exchange for closing its main nuclear facility at Yongbyon, But the North insisted on knowing how much it was going to get up front - and wanted it made public.

Ultimately, such debate paved the way for a more comprehensive deal in the six-party talks, an exhausted but satisfied lead U.S. negotiator, Christopher Hill, told reporters yesterday.

By offering Pyongyang 50,000 tons of heavy fuel oil within the first two months and dangling another 950,000 tons in a second phase, negotiators from South Korea, the United States, China, Russia and Japan were able to map out a potential long-range commitment with North Korea, Hill said.

"Obviously, we have a long way to go, but we're very pleased with this solid step forward," he said. "This is not the end of the process. It's the end of the beginning of the process."

Under the deal, North Korea agreed to shut down and seal plutonium production and reprocessing activities at Yongbyon within 60 days, invite international inspectors back into the country, participate in working groups and start assembling a comprehensive list of its nuclear weapons and energy programs.

In return, North Korea will receive the 50,000 tons of fuel oil, about a month's worth of the North's energy needs, and a pledge by the United States to lift financial sanctions within a month affecting a Macau bank that is holding $24 million in North Korean assets.

Washington and Pyongyang will also start the process of removing the North from the U.S. list of nations that are said to sponsor terrorism, aiming toward a goal of establishing full diplomatic relations. The United States will initiate steps to eliminate sanctions under the Trading with the Enemy Act.

In a second, longer phase, the North is to receive another 950,000 tons of fuel oil or its equivalent in aid, provided that it agrees to dismantle the Yongbyon facility, compile a complete declaration of its nuclear programs and disable all nuclear facilities, including graphite-moderated reactors and reprocessing plants.

"The sooner they get the actions done, the sooner they get the fuel oil," Hill said.

North Korea tested a nuclear bomb Oct. 9, resulting in a swift vote by the United Nations to impose economic sanctions and later, a scramble to get negotiations back on track.

"I am pleased with the agreements reached today at the six-party talks in Beijing," President Bush said yesterday in a statement read by press secretary Tony Snow.

Snow said Pyongyang faces U.N. sanctions if it reneges on the deal.

In Israel, Vice Premier Shimon Peres said the aid-for-disarmament deal shows that diplomatic and economic sanctions can work, and urged the international community to put similar pressure on Iran to drop its nuclear development program. "Economic sanctions can really be effective, as evidenced by the change in the policy of North Korea," he told Israeli Army Radio.

All sides agreed to meet for another round of talks March 19.

The price tag for the 1 million tons of fuel or its equivalent is estimated at $300 million at current spot market prices, a cost that would be borne equally by the United States, China, South Korea and Russia.

"North Korea secured a pretty high price," said Xia Liping, a professor at the Shanghai Institute for International Studies. "It's worth it, though. It will certainly cost something to make North Korea drop its nuclear program."

Mark Magnier writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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