- The Washington Times - Monday, February 12, 2007

BEIJING — Negotiators early today announced a tentative agreement on steps to begin dismantling North Korea’s nuclear weapons program in exchange for a package of energy assistance and other incentives.

The deal, concluded after five days of talks culminating in a 16-hour session that ended in the small hours today, remains subject to approval from the capitals of the six participating nations. Most details were not made public, and officials said they would resume negotiations later today.

Christopher Hill, the chief U.S. negotiator, said the talks had “made a lot of progress — so much so that the Chinese felt secure in distributing a final text.”

A brief statement issued by China’s official Xinhua news agency just before 3 a.m. Beijing time said: “The envoys of the six parties involved in the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue worked overnight in a bid to clinch a possible deal, but no agreements announced yet.”

Mr. Hill said the United States was fully behind the Chinese text, but he did not rule out attempts by the North to extract more concessions or renegotiate the steps it has to take. He called the draft an implementation document of the September 2005 joint statement of principles, in which all parties committed to the denuclearization of the peninsula.

He said he had been in constant communication with Washington during the negotiations and spoken to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice “on many occasions this evening.” He said that “people need to look at it, including Secretary Rice” and that the text was an “excellent, excellent draft.”

“I don’t think we are the problem. I can’t predict everything in that regard. The Chinese worked really hard, and we support what the Chinese are doing,” Mr. Hill added.

He said the North Koreans “have seen every word that is in this text, and it was on this basis that all the parties agreed that this was the way to go.” Nevertheless, “they’ll have things that they want to get off their chest; we’ll have a meeting tomorrow to see where we are.”

North Korea did not comment publicly on the draft, but South Korean envoy Chun Yung-woo said he thought the proposal would be acceptable to Pyongyang. He said the five other countries agreed to evenly contribute to the energy aid outlined under the deal.

Japan and Russia, however, were noncommittal. The Japanese envoy, Kenichiro Sasae, said it was “too early to tell” whether Tokyo was satisfied. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Losyukov said there were “many questions regarding details,” Russia’s Itar-Tass news agency reported.

The latest round of talks began Thursday on a promising note after the United States and North Korea, which has demanded improved relations with Washington, held an unusual meeting last month in Germany and signaled a willingness to compromise.

But the 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 three yards, three yards, three yards, and it’s always fourth and one. Then you make a first down and do three more yards,” Mr. Hill said, 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 — had called North Korea’s energy demands excessive.

South Korean and Japanese press 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.

The agreement calls for creating five working groups to handle technical matters related to denuclearization, normalizing North Korea’s diplomatic relations with the United States and Japan, as well as easing U.S. financial sanctions imposed on the North in 2005, diplomats said.

“We don’t want to miss any deadlines, because if you begin missing a deadline, other things start missing, and before you know it aren’t getting done,” Mr. Hill said.

In Washington, conservatives who oppose negotiations with North Korea were quick to denounce the tentative deal.

John R. Bolton, until recently ambassador to the United Nations, said President Bush should instruct Mr. Hill not to sign the text, noting that it resembles the Clinton administration’s 1994 deal with Pyongyang, known as the Agreed Framework.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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