By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, February 13, 2007
BEIJING, Feb. 13 -- Envoys from six nations reached a tentative agreement early Tuesday on the first steps toward North Korea's nuclear disarmament, a potential breakthrough in talks that have faltered repeatedly since 2003.
The chief U.S. negotiator, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher R. Hill, qualified the draft accord as "excellent" but declined to provide details. He said it was being submitted to all six governments and, pending their formal approval, would be ratified at a meeting scheduled later Tuesday in Beijing.
"We would like to think that we can all agree on this," Hill said at a briefing for reporters. "We feel it is an excellent draft, so I don't think we would be the problem."
A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, Qin Gang, also suggested the tentative agreement was likely to gain formal approval by the six governments, including North Korea. He cited "extraordinarily strenuous efforts" in negotiations that lasted through the night, and said the delegates would gather again later Tuesday "to confirm the progress we have made."
Some observers expressed caution, noting that North Korea has proved unpredictable in the past, and that any deal would have to be approved by the country's Stalinist leader, Kim Jong Il.
The tentative agreement lays out the first concrete steps that would put into practice an accord reached in September 2005, in which the Pyongyang government pledged to dismantle its entire nuclear program. According to diplomats involved in five days of arduous talks here, the opening move would be for North Korea to close down its nuclear reactor at Yongbyon and readmit international nuclear inspectors in exchange for energy aid.
In that regard, Tuesday's accord is expected to resemble an earlier bargain with North Korea, the Agreed Framework reached in 1994 during the Clinton administration but renounced eight years later during the Bush administration. Under that deal, North Korea pledged to freeze and eventually dismantle its reactor in return for 500,000 tons a year of heavy fuel oil.
Despite a sense of achievement in Beijing, the deal was expected to face criticism in Washington, with Democrats charging the administration allowed North Korea to gain nuclear weapons through poor diplomacy in recent years and conservatives saying it shows weakness at a critical moment.
"This is a very bad deal," former U.N. ambassador John R. Bolton told CNN. "It contradicts fundamental premises of the president's policy he's been following for the past six years. And second, it makes the administration look very weak at a time in Iraq . . . when it needs to look strong."
Hill declined to specify how much aid North Korea would receive in the new bargain -- it had demanded large quantities of heavy fuel oil, reportedly up to 2 million tons -- or to detail the schedule that would presumably tie fuel deliveries to closure of the Yongbyon reactor and subsequent steps. The Chinese-sponsored negotiations, including North and South Korea, Japan, Russia, China and the United States, had faltered for several days over what Hill had described as a North Korean effort to lock in large amounts of energy aid without binding itself to corresponding denuclearization steps.
The Chinese, as sponsors and hosts, worked intensively to prevent the talks from ending in failure, Hill said, resulting in the all-night series of meetings. The Beijing government was eager to avoid a repeat of the last round of talks, in December, which ended in stalemate after North Korea refused to negotiate until a U.S.-North Korean banking dispute was resolved.
The chief Japanese envoy, Kenichiro Sasae, said the tentative agreement was the result of compromises from all six nations. In addition to seeking an end to the North Korean nuclear threat, Japan has sought to have the talks embrace the issue of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korean agents and still not accounted for. Others in the six-party talks have been eager to avoid letting it prevent progress on nuclear disarmament.
North Korea's senior nuclear negotiator, Kim Gye Gwan, signaled agreement with all the draft provisions, including fuel aid, according to Chun Yung Woo, the chief South Korean delegate. But the final word had not yet come from Pyongyang, he noted.
According to diplomats' descriptions of what was under discussion, the issue of North Korea's existing nuclear weapons and the plutonium fuel already produced at Yongbyon would be left for later. U.S. experts have estimated that North Korea has enough plutonium to make eight or 10 bombs.
Similarly, a U.S. allegation that North Korea also has started a uranium enrichment program to produce nuclear fuel would not be addressed in the initial agreement. North Korea has denied it has such a program.
Based on the difficulty in moving from the 2005 agreement in principle to Tuesday's accord, those issues seemed likely to generate complicated negotiations in the months ahead. Moreover, they would force North Korean leaders to decide whether they are willing to forsake the nuclear weapons they have devoted so many resources to developing.
Nevertheless, Hill said, reaching the agreement augured well for negotiations on the subsequent steps. A new round of talks on the next steps is likely next month, he added.
Since the negotiations began, in August 2003, they have been marked by long North Korean boycotts and repeated sessions of fruitless discussions.
In addition, when the September 2005 accord was reached, North Korea had a research program but no nuclear weapons. But it exploded a nuclear device last October and swiftly declared itself a nuclear power.
Staff writer Glenn Kessler in Washington contributed to this report.