China circulated a proposed agreement on broad principles for ending North Korea's nuclear weapons program Saturday, seeking to push forward long-stalled six-party talks aimed at guaranteeing a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula.
The Chinese draft, which diplomats discussed without reaching a conclusion, was seen as an attempt to pull together the lowest common denominator of views that have been laid out during five days of intense but so far fruitless negotiations here, including an unprecedented half-dozen bilateral meetings between U.S. and North Korean diplomats.
"We're operating from a piece of paper now, and we'll see what we can do," said Christopher Hill, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs and leader of the U.S. delegation.
Hill has said that signing off on a list of what he called "agreed principles" was the main goal of the current round of talks, which began Tuesday. The idea, he explained, is to use the agreement on principles as a foundation for further talks and a demonstration that the six-party process is worth pursuing.
But diplomats from several of the six participating nations -- including Russia, Japan and South Korea -- told reporters that the United States and North Korea remained far apart even on such a basic document. Perhaps the most intractable difference, they said, was North Korea's demand for swift compensation for a commitment to dismantle its nuclear weapons program and U.S. insistence that inspections and dismantling actually begin before compensation is delivered.
As a result, the diplomats predicted the talks were likely to continue for several more days of what Hill called "wordsmithing." Some diplomats noted that the prolonged negotiations -- previous rounds were only three days long -- and the frequent contacts between U.S. and North Korean diplomats could in themselves be qualified as progress. But beneath the wrangling over language lay substantial differences on fundamental issues, such as what subjects the talks should include and at what point North Korea should be rewarded for any steps to end a program that it says already has produced nuclear weapons.
Whether these issues can be narrowed, or at least papered over, will determine whether what has been described as an improved atmosphere and intensified resolve can be translated into enough progress to justify continuing the six-party process. North Korea, which returned to the talks after a 13-month boycott, has declared that it, too, wants a denuclearized Korean Peninsula. But U.S. diplomats repeatedly have questioned whether the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Il, really has made the strategic decision to abandon his country's nuclear ambitions.
The dispute over when certain steps should be taken, which diplomats here refer to as sequencing, has been at the heart of difficulties facing the six-party negotiations since they began in August 2003 under Chinese sponsorship. In opening this round, for instance, North Korea cited differences on sequencing as its main reason for rejecting a U.S. proposal that has been on the table since the last round of talks, in June 2004.