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Tentative deal reached at North Korea nuclear talks

BEIJING—Negotiators on the North Korean nuclear crisis reached a breakthrough early Tuesday that awaits only formal approval from six world capitals.

Envoys haggled until early morning Tuesday to end the stalemate over how much energy assistance and aid to provide North Korea in exchange for firm steps toward nuclear disarmament.

U.S. chief negotiator Christopher Hill said all envoys agreed on the wording of a final revised text produced by the Chinese hosts of the talks.

"We feel it's an excellent draft," Hill said. "I think we made a lot of progress. I'm encouraged by this."

Envoys reconvened late Tuesday morning, and the Chinese government set a mid-afternoon closing session for signing the document and beginning a 60-day period of initial steps toward shutting down North Korea's nuclear program in exchange for energy assistance.

Hill said North Korea envoy Kim Kye-gwan was consulted repeatedly on the revisions and appeared to approve them. All the envoys including Kim were consulting with their respective capitals overnight.

North Korea conducted a nuclear test Oct. 9 and has said it needs a nuclear deterrent to prevent attacks by the United States and other enemies.

In Washington, U.S. officials said that one major element of the accord would be North Korea's agreement to "shutter and seal" its Yongbyon reactor, which produced the plutonium for the nuclear test. In addition, it will have to provide a full accounting of all other nuclear facilities.

Since Pyongyang's nuclear test, the talks have taken on greater urgency. The United States has cast them as perhaps crucial to resolving underlying tensions in Northeast Asia that go beyond the Korean Peninsula crisis, including postwar frictions between North Korea and Japan. The participants in the talks comprise North Korea, South Korea, the United States, Japan, Russia and China.

Envoys met in a session that began early Monday and involved what Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang called "extraordinarily intensive consultations."

If the accord is formally signed later Tuesday, it will be in part the result of an about-face by the Bush administration in its recent dealings with North Korea, which include extensive face-to-face negotiations. Some analysts describe the Bush administration as having offered a grand bargain to lure Pyongyang toward disarming.

The deal foresees U.S. security guarantees for North Korea and eventual American diplomatic recognition of one of the last totalitarian bastions around the globe.

Such moves are a departure from the stance early in the Bush administration. In 2002, President Bush labeled the Pyongyang regime as part of an "axis of evil," along with Iraq and Iran, and U.S. envoys rarely met with North Korean diplomats except in multilateral settings.

Recent months have seen Hill meet repeatedly in one-on-one sessions with Kim, his North Korean counterpart, including three days of talks last month in Berlin.

Hill repeated Tuesday morning that the six-nation talks on North Korea "could carry us further and deal, as I mentioned to you before, with some of the underlying historical issues that have bedeviled the region."

If a breakthrough is formalized, the six nations could be enmeshed in the common task of monitoring North Korean compliance as well as dealing with one another in a more sustained manner, a difficult process in view of the tensions among Japan, China and the Koreas dating to World War II.

As part of a broader denuclearization agreement, five or six "working groups" would be set up to deal with specific issues, such as U.S.-North Korean normalization and strained relations between North Korea and Japan dating to a series of abductions along the coast of Japan in the 1970s and 1980s.

North Korea later admitted that its agents had snatched Japanese and forced them to help train its spies better. Japan and North Korea differ over how many Japanese were abducted and the fates of those yet to be returned. North Korea says eight abductees have died.

While Hill and Kim now meet regularly, tensions between the North Korean and Japanese envoys are still palpable. The two met in a bilateral session for an hour Monday, the Kyodo news agency said, and the abduction issue was a topic of discussion.

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(Warren P. Strobel contributed to this story from Washington.)

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(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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