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Outcome of N. Korea Talks Is Up in Air

Times Staff Writer

Participants in international negotiations aimed at persuading North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons indicated Tuesday that the talks would soon draw to a close, but said the prospects for an agreement remained unclear.

The six nations planned to begin a ninth day of talks today to submit final comments on a document drafted by China. The proposed statement of agreed principles is intended to outline how the six nations -- North Korea, the United States, South Korea, China, Russia and Japan -- will proceed with future talks.

“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 it go forward,” said U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Robert B. Zoellick, who was visiting Beijing on Tuesday for discussions on a separate issue.

Christopher Hill, the American envoy to the nuclear talks, told reporters Tuesday that the Chinese side was trying to bring the negotiations to a conclusion of some kind in the next few days.

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“I think the issue is how one winds this up,” Hill said. “That is, does it wind up with an agreement? Does it wind up with parties saying well, look, we have to do some more substantial consultations in capitals? Or does it wind up in a flat-out disagreement?”

The exact points of contention on the statement were unclear, but North Korea and Washington have been at odds over what rewards North Korea would receive for giving up its nuclear weapons, and when it would get them.

Washington has insisted that Pyongyang dismantle its nuclear weapons before the U.S. extends aid or security guarantees to the impoverished communist state.

But North Korea is afraid that if it disarms first, it will lose the bargaining power to get what it wants, including full diplomatic recognition from Washington and normalized relations with the United States.

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North Korea’s envoy to the talks said Tuesday night that the United States needed to do more before Pyongyang could abandon its nuclear arsenal.

“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 Gye Gwan told reporters. Still, he said, Pyongyang hopes to “narrow these differences as much as we can to present results.”

What Kim meant by “nuclear threat” was unclear. Washington has said that it removed all of its nuclear weapons from its ally South Korea in the 1990s. But U.S. nuclear submarines, for instance, may still pass near the Korean peninsula.

In an effort to put Pyongyang more at ease, U.S. officials repeatedly have said that Washington has no intention of invading North Korea. They have also said that the United States respects North Korea’s “sovereignty.”

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If the round of talks produces any kind of statement agreed to by all six nations, it would be considered progress compared with the three previous sessions, dating to 2003, which ended with nothing.

Previous sessions lasted about three days each, making this round the longest by far, and it remains open-ended.

U.S. officials have called the talks “businesslike,” and the delegation has held multiple one-on-one meetings with the North Koreans. In previous rounds, the Americans tried to avoid any bilateral encounters with them.

Russia’s Interfax news service quoted what it called an “informed” North Korean source as saying that the talks probably would end today. “We believe that if we fail to sign a final document, that would mean that the fourth round ... failed,” the source said.

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Tom Casey, acting State Department spokesman, said that the statement of principles under discussion was the fourth draft, and that with each successive version the parties were moving closer to narrowing their differences.

“This is a very deliberate and methodical process,” Casey said in Washington. “Obviously, it’s good that they’re continuing to talk and have discussions, but at this point ... I wouldn’t want to try and presume any conclusions.”


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