Progress ‘possible’ on N Korea

The six parties to the North Korea nuclear talks will on Friday consider a new draft agreement laying out the rewards Pyongyang can expect in return for taking concrete steps towards denuclearisation.

With new momentum in the tortuous negotiations aimed at convincing North Korea to abandon its weapons programme, diplomats are hoping to break the deadlock that contributed to Pyongyang’s decision to conduct its first nuclear test last year.

“I think we had a good first day,” Christopher Hill, the US’s chief negotiator, said on Thursday night. “I would say that the delegations are coalescing around some of the themes that we believe should be the basis for the first step towards implementing the September 2005 agreement.” Condoleezza Rice US secretary of state, said on Thursday, she was “cautiously optimistic” that it may be possible to resume progress.

After 18 months of stalemate, there is a sense that all parties are now willing to make serious efforts to implement that agreement, under which North Korea agreed to abandon its nuclear weapons programme and the other countries – China, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the US – pledged economic and energy aid.

China, the host of the talks, was due to distribute a draft of a new, lesser deal to all sides by Friday morning.

Mr Hill declined to comment on the details, but it is understood that Pyongyang is seeking the resumption of heavy fuel oil shipments while Washington is looking for more than just a “freeze” at the North’s Yongbyon nuclear power plant.

A joint statement from this round of talks would be a “good first step” towards implementing the deal signed 18 months ago, he said.

“The September 2005 statement was a very ambitious agreement dealing with denuclearisation and dealing with some of the problems in the region,” Mr Hill said. “We have got a lot of work to do but we think that if we can get to the first step that will give us some momentum to get to the second and then the third.”

In a sign that will fuel optimism over the round, Kim Kye-gwan, North Korea’s nuclear envoy, made a similar statement on his arrival in Beijing yesterday, although with the usual caveat. “We are prepared to discuss first-stage measures,” Mr Kim said. “We are going to make a judgment based on whether the US will give up its hostile policy and come out toward peaceful coexistence,” he said.

On the financial sanctions that North Korea says exemplify the US’s “hostile policy”, Mr Hill said only that the parties had “an understanding” of the issue. The talks broke down over the US’s allegations that North Korea had been involved in counterfeiting and money laundering and in spite of long investigation, the issue does not appear to have yet been resolved.

But the extensive discussions leading up the opening of the talks on Thursday had laid the groundwork for reaching an agreement, said Chun Yung-woo, South Korea's chief negotiator. “There have been such close negotiations between the participants leading up to this round that there is an expectation that we can get started on a draft for this round earlier than in previous rounds,” Mr Chun said.

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