North Korea nuclear talks reach do-or-die point

Monday, September 19, 2005

BEIJING -- International talks seeking to convince North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program were in their "endgame" today, the top U.S. negotiator said, before delegates met to consider a Chinese proposal for resolving the standoff.

U.S. assistant secretary of state Christopher Hill said the talks would wrap up in a matter of hours.

"We're at the endgame," he said as he left his hotel early today.

Hill declined to reveal specifics of the proposal. Russia's envoy said earlier that it acknowledged North Korea's right to a peaceful nuclear program after disarming -- but it was not known if that draft had been revised.

Washington had previously rejected allowing North Korea any atomic program, saying its decades of relentlessly pursuing a nuclear bomb means it can't be trusted.

Hill said North Korea "has some demands and the question is whether anybody accepts those demands."

"I think we have a pretty good arrangement on that, but I have to see what it looks like finally," he said.

South Korea's main envoy, Song Min-soon, said today that it was "time to make a decision."

He added that a resolution depended on all six countries at the talks -- China, Japan, Russia, the United States and the two Koreas.

"It is not a situation where just one party decides whether to accept," Song said.

The night before Hill said he was leaving today no matter what happened at the meeting for all six delegations to state their positions.

"Everyone knows each other's positions, everyone knows the agreement, everyone can almost recite it from memory at this point, so I'm not sure we have to do too much talking," he said Sunday evening. "I think we have to sort of ... put the cards on the table and see where we are."

Hill described the proposal before the talks as "a good effort to try to bridge the remaining differences, which I believe are difficult but certainly not insurmountable."

That was far more optimistic than his view Saturday, when he said the United States and several other countries had problems with the document's wording.

"It's a good draft for all concerned, and I think it's especially a really great opportunity for" North Korea, he said Sunday.

North Korea had not commented publicly on the proposal, but after it was put forward Friday, a spokesman denounced efforts to get the North to give up its nuclear weapons program without concessions from the United States.

Participants have offered economic aid, security guarantees from Washington and free electricity from South Korea in exchange for dismantling its weapons program.

North Korea has demanded to be given a light-water nuclear reactor for generating electricity before disarming, promising to open that facility to co-management and international inspections.

The Pyongyang regime was promised two light-water reactors -- believed to be more difficult to use in diverting radioactive material for making nuclear bombs -- under a 1994 deal. But that agreement unraveled in late 2002 when U.S. officials said the North admitted it was building atomic bombs, leading to the current diplomatic effort to find resolve the standoff.

"There is still a chance of reaching an agreement," Japanese envoy Kenichiro Sasae said Sunday evening, also sounding more positive than a day before.

Meanwhile, the head of the Pyongyang office of the United Nations' World Food Program said Sunday that a decade of emergency aid shipments to North Korea would end by January at the request of the country's communist government.

"They claim they have enough food coming in from other sources," Richard Ragan told The Associated Press, indicating that included aid from South Korea and increased trade with China. "They didn't want to create a culture of dependency."

Since starting emergency aid in 1995, the WFP has distributed about 4 million tons of food worth $1.5 billion to North Koreans. That has included donations from the United States, despite the continuing nuclear standoff and Pyongyang's constant saber-rattling at Washington as its main enemy.

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