BEIJING – Envoys to international talks on ending North Korea's nuclear weapons program struggled Friday to find a compromise as differences emerged over a Chinese proposal on how to begin disarmament.
Christopher Hill, the main U.S. envoy to the talks, said all sides agreed on the proposal's broader issues. Hill said the remaining issues focused on a single paragraph of the Chinese proposal for a set of reciprocal steps aimed at implementing a 2005 deal that calls for North Korea to disarm in exchange for security guarantees and aid.
Hill said the envoys were working to rewrite the text to address North Korea's concerns. He did not give any details.
“I think we can be cautiously optimistic,” Hill said after a two-hour lunch meeting with his North Korean counterpart, Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye Gwan, in the first bilateral session between the two sides at this week's talks.
Japan's envoy, Kenichiro Sasae, said while there was consensus on some points, but that there was no prospect of an imminent agreement.
“There are some parts in which we had progress but on others we ran into difficulty. We will continue with the talks, but at this point in time I don't feel there is a prospect of reaching an agreement,” Sasae said.
Kim said the meeting led to agreement on some unspecified issues, although there were still issues to overcome. “We are going to make more efforts to resolve them,” Kim said.
Late Thursday after the first day of talks, China distributed a draft agreement to the nuclear envoys from China, Japan, the two Koreas, Russia and the United States.
The proposal – presented after North Korea agreed in principle to take initial steps to disarm – would grant the communist nation unspecified energy aid for shutting down its main nuclear facilities within two months, South Korea's Yonhap news agency reported.
Officials declined to confirm details of the draft.
Hill said earlier Friday he saw “differences” among the delegations over the draft deal.
A South Korean official also cautioned against being too optimistic. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the issue's sensitivity, said it is “not as easy as expected to produce a result due to differences in positions and a conflict of interests.”
Both Hill and the South Korean official declined to elaborate on what the differences were.
But a pro-Pyongyang newspaper in Japan said the North wants the U.S. first to show that it has permanently ceased its “hostile” policy toward Pyongyang.
“As conditions mature, (North Korea) can halt the operation of the Yongbyon nuclear facilities,” the Choson Sinbo said, referring to the site of the North's main nuclear complex north of Pyongyang.
“The (North)'s position is that it can take corresponding measures when the U.S. takes steps to show that it irreversibly gave up its hostile policy,” it said.
The report, carried on the paper's Web site, cited a “diplomatic source well versed in” the negotiations. The paper, with links to the government in Pyongyang, is considered one of the North's propaganda tools.
Any agreement on an initial set of reciprocal moves to implement a September 2005 accord – in which North Korea pledged to disarm in exchange for aid and security guarantees – would set the stage for the first tangible steps in the often-delayed six-nation process.
The 2005 deal, a broad statement of principles that did not outline any concrete steps for dismantling North Korea's nuclear program, was the only agreement since the negotiations began in 2003.
At the last session of the arms negotiations in December, following North Korea's Oct. 9 underground nuclear test, the North refused to even talk about its nuclear programs. Instead, it demanded the U.S. lift financial restrictions targeting alleged North Korean counterfeiting and money laundering.