North Korea on Wednesday formally rejected the terms of a long-standing U.S. proposal for resolving the standoff over Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program, diplomats said.
The North Korean objections, although expected, underlined the difficulties negotiators face in newly resumed six-party talks here despite improved atmospherics and what diplomats described as increased resolve to make progress toward banning nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula.
"The DPRK is a country that prides itself on being different, and this is certainly proving true in these negotiations," a senior U.S. official said, using the initials of North Korea's official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. "Things are not easy."
As described by U.S. officials, the proposal first made in June 2004 would provide aid and security assurances to North Korea if it agreed to a schedule that would do away with its nuclear weapons program.
North Korean diplomats complained, the senior U.S. official said, that the proposal was front-loaded with demands that the Pyongyang government agree to dismantle its nuclear program and allow inspections by outsiders before receiving the security assurances and economic aid it has demanded in return.
Christopher Hill, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs and head of the U.S. negotiating team at the talks, underlined the U.S. approach in remarks Tuesday at this round's opening session. He said the goal in sequencing the give-and-take should be "words for words and actions for actions."
The U.S. proposal was portrayed when first proposed 13 months ago as a sign of flexibility designed to break the deadlock in the multinational talks. Since then, however, North Korea has altered the equation, announcing last February that it possesses nuclear weapons.
The senior U.S. official, who briefed reporters on condition his name not be used, said Wednesday that the administration's proposal still represented a basis for talks despite North Korea's demand for more simultaneity. But in the first two days of contacts, he said, the six delegations -- China, Russia, Japan and South Korea in addition to the United States and North Korea -- have mainly laid out their respective positions. As the talks continue, the immediate effort will center on building a list of "agreed principles" that can be exhibited as a sign of progress and, eventually, expanded during further talks, he said.
"Our concern in putting together this basket of principles is that the basket can be turned into an agreement," he said.
This implied, however, that the more difficult issues, such as sequencing, would be put off until later.
Other particularly sensitive points of discord likely left for resolution later include a U.S. assertion that North Korea has a uranium enrichment program in addition to the plutonium-based weapons program it has acknowledged.
North Korea also has suggested that the U.S. alliance with South Korea be taken into account, implying that U.S. nuclear weapons are part of security guarantees for South Korea. That, the U.S. official said, is unacceptable to the Bush administration. But he predicted that North Korea would not push the issue so hard that it prevents the six nations gathered here from agreeing that they all desire a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula.