- The Washington Times - Monday, February 12, 2007

BEIJING (AP) — Negotiators reached a tentative agreement on initial steps for North Korea’s nuclear disarmament, the U.S. envoy to the talks said Tuesday.

Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill said the agreement outlined specific commitments for North Korea and would set up working groups to implement those goals to begin meeting in about a month. He declined to give other details.

“I’m encouraged by this that we were able to take a step forward on the denuclearization issue,” Hill said.

The agreement could mark the first step toward disarmament in more than three years of inconclusive negotiations and deadlock. The process reached its lowest point in October when North Korea conducted its first nuclear test explosion.

The draft agreement came after 16 hours of what Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang called “extraordinarily intensive consultations” on the fifth day of talks.

“Some positive results have been achieved,” Qin said, but added that the negotiators would have to meet again later Tuesday in Beijing.

Japan’s chief envoy said it was “too early to tell” if his government was satisfied with the deal.

“I believe that countries have compromised somewhat toward an agreement,” Kenichiro Sasae said, declining to give any specifics.

The current round of six-nation talks began Thursday on a promising note after the United States and North Korea signaled a willingness to compromise. But negotiations quickly became mired on the issue of how much energy aid the North would get in exchange for initial steps of disarmament.

Other delegates at the talks - which also include Russia and South Korea - had called North Korea’s earlier demands for energy excessive.

South Korean and Japanese media 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.

Under a 1994 U.S.-North Korea disarmament agreement, the North was to receive 500,000 tons of fuel oil a year before construction was completed of two nuclear reactors that would be able to generate 2 million kilowatts of electricity.

That deal fell apart in late 2002 when the U.S. accused the North of conducting a secret uranium enrichment program, sparking the latest nuclear crisis.

The apparent progress came after the U.S. envoy said the meetings that began Monday would be the last day for this round of talks, saying the possibility for a breakthrough was solely in North Korea’s hands.

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