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Envoys optimistic on North Korean nuclear talks

BEIJING—The U.S. envoy to international talks on the North Korean nuclear crisis said Thursday that he was optimistic negotiators were nearing a breakthrough.

U.S. chief negotiator Christopher Hill said the talks had produced plans for an initial sequence of steps that could lead to North Korea dismantling its nuclear weapons program.

"I think we've identified a way forward," Hill said late Thursday in China.

Still, analysts said North Korea might be offering steps toward a nuclear freeze with no intention of abandoning its nuclear weapons, and the Bush administration might be touting tentative progress in hopes of claiming a foreign policy victory.

North Korea's chief envoy, Kim Kye-gwan, didn't arrive with a flurry of last-minute demands, as he had in previous negotiations. He made no public mention Thursday of Pyongyang's demand that Washington lift financial sanctions against a Macau bank that's holding $24 million in frozen North Korean money, which had led to a 13-month breakdown of the talks.

Kim said he was "neither optimistic nor pessimistic" and wanted only to "determine whether the United States is trying to abandon its hostile policy against us and come to peaceful coexistence or not."

A South Korean delegate, Chun Yung Woo, said China would circulate a draft agreement by Friday outlining the proposed steps toward providing North Korea with assistance in exchange for steps toward nuclear disarmament.

Hill described the renewal of the talks, which recessed in December and which involve Russia and Japan as well as the U.S., China and North and South Korea, as "a pretty good first day. It did meet expectations."

"We think that if we can get this first good step," Hill said, "it'll give us some momentum to get to the next step and the step after that."

Hill said the first steps in the proposed agreement would unfold quickly, not over a period of months but in "single-digit weeks."

The talks opened with China's chief negotiator, Wu Dawei, lauding the U.S. and North Korean envoys for three days of lengthy and unprecedented one-on-one discussions in Berlin in mid-January.

The two sides, he said, "had fruitful and in-depth contacts" and set "a more solid basis for this round."

Japan's Kyodo news agency, citing unnamed diplomatic sources, said North Korea was prepared to halt the operation of a 5-megawatt reactor in its Yongbyon nuclear complex and accept international nuclear monitors in return for some 157 million gallons of fuel oil a year and other economic benefits and security guarantees.

Analysts said North Korea had little to lose by freezing the Yongbyon nuclear reactor and that such a step wouldn't hinder its status as a new nuclear power. North Korea conducted a nuclear test Oct. 9, becoming the world's ninth nuclear state.

"We have not seen any convincing indications that North Korea is considering abandoning its nuclear weapons," said Shi Yinhong, a political scientist at People's University in Beijing.

For its part, Shi said, the White House under President Bush is eager to obtain a foreign policy victory on the North Korea nuclear issue even at the cost of obtaining the kind of deal that it once excoriated the Clinton administration for striking.

"His popularity is so low and his difficulties in Iraq are so severe," Shi said. "Bush really wants something to show the American people."

North Korea feels pressure from China, which was angered by Pyongyang's nuclear test, and may take small steps toward disarmament to get financial and energy assistance, Shi said.

Peter M. Beck, a Seoul, South Korea-based researcher for the International Crisis Group, which seeks peaceful solutions to conflicts, said North Korean negotiators probably were thinking, "We don't have a lot to lose. We've extracted enough plutonium to set aside the needs of our nuclear program for the foreseeable future. And if the U.S. is willing to give us these goodies, why not?"

Hill said Washington wouldn't be satisfied only with a suspension of North Korea's nuclear activity.

"We're not interested in freezing. We're interested in moving toward taking steps toward abandonment of these nuclear programs," he said.


(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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