By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, February 11, 2007
BEIJING, Feb. 10 -- Despite three days of hard bargaining, North Korean nuclear disarmament talks remained stuck Saturday over the energy aid North Korea would receive in return for closing its main nuclear reactor, diplomats said.
Discord over the compensation cast a pall over what had been high hopes that the six-nation talks could produce swift agreement on the first steps toward eliminating North Korea's nuclear weapons and dismantling the nuclear facilities that produce its fissionable material.
As a result, diplomats from the six nations -- North and South Korea, Japan, Russia, China and the United States -- made plans to return to the negotiating table at the Chinese government's secluded Diaoyutai guest compound here for additional sessions of negotiations Sunday and perhaps into next week.
"It's definitely an issue that has prevented us from sealing the deal right now," said Assistant Secretary of State Christopher R. Hill, the chief U.S. negotiator, without revealing the terms of the dispute. "I think it may take another day or two to get through this."
The stakes are high, Hill suggested, because another failure would again raise questions about the utility of the Chinese-sponsored six-party process, which has been underway off and on since August 2003 without results on the ground. In October, while the talks languished, North Korea set off a nuclear test blast and declared itself a nuclear power.
Hill, briefing reporters, emphasized that the other main elements of an agreement on initial disarmament steps were ready to sign. But he warned that other disagreements could also arise as long as the talks continue, suggesting the accord that looked so close when this round of talks began Thursday may turn out to be more distant than thought.
The last round of talks ended Dec. 22 in stalemate after the senior North Korean negotiator, Kim Gye Gwan, said he could not formally discuss North Korea's nuclear program until resolution of a financial dispute over U.S. allegations that a Macau bank was being used to launder illicit North Korean funds. Hill said that dispute, although not resolved, has been smoothed over by separate negotiations among U.S. and North Korean banking officials and a meeting last month in Berlin.
As a result, he said, Kim has been negotiating seriously. But the talks nevertheless reached an impasse over what South Korean diplomats described as the amount and timing of aid North Korea would receive in exchange for shutting down the Yongbyon reactor and readmitting international nuclear inspectors.
The facility, North Korea's main nuclear installation, produces plutonium that can be used for nuclear fuel. U.S. officials estimated that North Korea has produced enough plutonium to fuel eight to 10 nuclear weapons.
Two U.S. nuclear experts who visited North Korea's capital, Pyongyang, early this month were told that North Korea wants heavy fuel oil to produce electricity in return for closing Yongbyon, in addition to a commitment from the five other negotiating nations to build civilian-use nuclear power reactors in the future.