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N. Korea, U.S. Gave Ground to Make Deal

Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, left, talks with fellow delegates. From left are Kenichiro Sasae of Japan, Wu Dawei of China, Song Min Soon of South Korea, Kim Gye Gwan of North Korea and Alexander Alexeyev of Russia.
Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, left, talks with fellow delegates. From left are Kenichiro Sasae of Japan, Wu Dawei of China, Song Min Soon of South Korea, Kim Gye Gwan of North Korea and Alexander Alexeyev of Russia. (Pool Photo/by Ng Han Guan Via Reuters)

China sought to bridge the gap, playing its leadership role as sponsor of the talks. Chinese diplomats proposed language according North Korea the right to a reactor for electricity production but implying that it could invoke that right only after dismantling its weapons program and rejoining the international nuclear inspection regime.

For two days, U.S. diplomats refused to embrace the Chinese suggestion. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, the chief U.S. negotiator, told reporters several times he was insisting that all ambiguity be removed, refusing to open the way for problems in interpretation.

During the standoff, Hill was in frequent telephone contact with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and Rice in turn discussed what to do with other senior officials in the U.S. government, said a senior U.S. diplomat involved in the negotiations, joking that their involvement could be seen as "adult supervision." As China became increasingly firm that the compromise on the table was the best bargain possible, he said, the administration finally relented on Sunday.

"We didn't want to lose the agreement over this," he explained. The decision to make a final concession was approved at the highest level of U.S. government, he added, referring to President Bush.

U.S. officials stressed that significant obstacles remained in securing the ultimate end of North Korea's programs, and they insisted that any concessions were relatively minor. The Bush administration's Korea policy has long been troubled by conflicts between officials skeptical that a diplomatic solution could be found and those eager to strike a deal. Those conflicts could reemerge in talks over implementation.

The administration envisions what one senior official described yesterday as a "very intrusive verification regime that will go well beyond what is required" by the IAEA. "It's going to be tough getting there," he said. "This is an important step, but I don't think anyone is overselling this" agreement as a major diplomatic achievement.

Bush administration officials are wary of any comparisons between this week's agreement and a failed pact reached with North Korea by the Clinton administration in 1994. That agreement called for the building of two light-water reactors.

Before expelling international inspectors in late 2002, the secretive North was reluctant to allow access for U.N. inspection teams assigned to monitor its nuclear programs under the 1994 accord. Kim's government has even restricted World Food Program officials from monitoring distribution of food aid.

The statement was signed by North Korea, the United States and the four other participants in the talks -- China, Russia, Japan and South Korea. The six-nation talks have been sponsored by China since August 2003. But they made little progress until Rice became secretary of state this year and assigned Hill, who played a key role in negotiating the Dayton accords that ended the Bosnia war.

Diplomats from the six nations recessed immediately after their signing session, promising to return to Beijing in early November to start talks in which Hill said verification procedures would be the priority. He indicated the next step would be determining how the United States and other nations can confirm that North Korea is shutting down its Yongbyon research reactor and dismantling its weapons program.

Hill, in a telephone interview as he was changing planes in Chicago, said, "Verification is a big deal that has yet to be worked out." He said the importance of the agreement was that "we got them on the record in an international deal. . . . I am not prepared to be cynical about it."

Specialists pointed out that North Korean diplomats were likely to seek immediate economic and energy aid in return for each step toward verification.

"At the moment, we still can't be sure of Kim's intentions," said Hajime Izumi, a professor at Japan's University of Shizuoka. "They have bought some time to consider seriously whether they will give up all their weapons and programs . . . but there are so many points along the road in which this process could again reach a stalemate that it's simply too early to celebrate."

U.S. officials say North Korea in an October 2002 meeting acknowledged the existence of a secret uranium enrichment program designed to become another source of weapons material. North Korea has since denied that.

Although that issue was not mentioned in the document, U.S. officials said it is covered by the pledge to dismantle "all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs" and by a separate reference to a 1992 agreement with South Korea, which prohibited uranium enrichment.

A good first step, Hill suggested, would be shutting down the Yongbyon reactor, which produces plutonium. Under the accord signed yesterday, it must be taken apart, he said, so it makes little sense to keep it running. "The time to turn it off is about now," he added.

One long-term incentive in the joint agreement was the call for the United States and Japan to "take steps to normalize relations with North Korea" if the Pyongyang government gives up its weapons program. Such a historic rapprochement could mean billions of dollars worth of economic assistance from Japan alone in belated World War II-era reparations.

Cody reported from Beijing. Correspondent Anthony Faiola in Tokyo contributed to this report.

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