N. Korea nuclear talks may end soon

BEIJING -- Breaking its public silence on nuclear disarmament talks, North Korea said Tuesday it wants to narrow differences with the United States but still insisted it won't give up its atomic weapons program until Washington withdraws alleged threats.

The main U.S. envoy said talks were nearing their conclusion -- possibly within days -- with delegates from six countries set to submit final comments today on a draft proposed by China for a statement of principles to guide future arms negotiations.

However, U.S. assistant secretary of state Christopher Hill raised the possibility the discussions might break off without an agreement.

"Whether we have a draft that everyone agrees on, or whether it's decided that there should be a recess of some kind, we don't know yet," Hill said, adding negotiators were "close to the end of this round" after eight days of talks.

Hill said the latest version of the statement was "a good draft" that he had submitted to Washington for review, but he didn't know how other delegations would respond. He declined to give any specifics of what the document contained.

Hill appeared noticeably more upbeat after Tuesday's meetings compared to his pessimism the day before, but cautioned: "I don't think one can talk about progress until you actually see the agreement."

"We have to find a way to get (North Korea) out of this nuclear business," he said.

The Chinese hosts of the talks were "really trying to bring these negotiations to a conclusion of some kind in the next few days, with the idea that we would not be here for the next few weeks," Hill said.

"There are five parties that are in pretty close agreement on those principles and the key question is whether North Korea is willing to make the strategic decision it needs to make to go forward," U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick said in Beijing, where he was on a visit separate from the nuclear talks.

The North's main envoy said Tuesday evening there "remain differences in opinions" between Pyongyang and Washington, making his first public comments since the arms talks began July 26.

"Our decision is to give up nuclear weapons and programs related to nuclear weapons if the United States removes its nuclear threat against us and when trust is built," Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye Gwan said.

Still, Pyongyang hopes to "narrow these differences as much as we can to present results," he said.

The North has alleged the United States has nuclear weapons in South Korea, a claim Seoul and Washington deny. However, the North's reference to a U.S. threat could also mean other forces in Asia, where the U.S. military has maintained a strong presence since the end of World War II.

When asked about Kim's comments, Hill responded: "The United States is not threatening anybody."

No details of any draft statements have been released officially, but reports have said it would mention energy aid and a security guarantee for Pyongyang, as well as eventually normalizing relations with Washington.

Unlike previous negotiations where delegates failed to agree on a joint statement after meetings lasting about three days each, this round had no time limit for concluding.

U.S. officials said in late 2002 that the North admitted violating a 1994 deal by embarking on a secret uranium enrichment program, sparking the latest nuclear crisis. Three previous rounds of six-nation arms talks since 2003 -- between China, Japan, Russia, the United States and the two Koreas -- have failed to make any breakthroughs.

The North doesn't want to give up its nuclear program without receiving anything first, while Washington is wary of Pyongyang's promises and instead wants to see the weapons verifiably eliminated before giving any rewards.

In February, the North claimed it had nuclear weapons and has since taken steps that would allow it to harvest more plutonium for possible use in bombs. Many experts believe the North already has enough weapons-grade material for about a half-dozen atomic weapons.