Diplomats sought Wednesday to break a stalemate between the United States and North Korea that has bogged down six-party negotiations on North Korean disarmament and threatened to leave the talks stalled once again.
The standoff involved some of the same issues that have held up progress over two years of on-and-off negotiations, officials said. The negotiations have dramatized the difficulty of persuading North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program despite what was described as an improved atmosphere in the current talks. The negotiations began in August 2003; this fourth round resumed July 26 after a 13-month lull.
Christopher Hill, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs and head of the U.S. delegation, said diplomats from the six nations involved have concluded that this round should draw to a close soon even though nine days of arduous wrangling have produced no agreement. "Certainly, one does get the sense that we're getting to the endpoint here," Hill said Wednesday evening.
Hill appeared to acknowledge for the first time that this round might conclude without any forward movement. Such an outcome could strengthen the hand of officials in the Bush administration who contend that the talks are not helpful and that the United States instead should seek sanctions against North Korea in the U.N. Security Council.
But China, as sponsor of the process, continued to press for agreement on an accord -- now in its fourth draft -- that would list a set of "agreed principles" to form the basis for further negotiations and demonstrate that the talks are worth pursuing. The Chinese government, through its official New China News Agency, announced that more talks would be held Thursday.
Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing telephoned Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for what was believed to be a report on the talks, combined with an attempt to cajole concessions from the Bush administration, the agency reported. The terms of their conversation were not revealed.
Hill said that from the U.S. point of view, the key question now is whether North Korea will accept the accord proposed by China, which he said the United States and other nations "are essentially comfortable with." In that spirit, senior Chinese Foreign Ministry officials were urging North Korea's chief delegate, Vice Foreign Minister Kim Gye Gwan, to join in endorsing the agreement, diplomats said.
Hill, briefing reporters after an evening of negotiations, portrayed the stalemate essentially as a standoff between North Korea on one side and the five other nations -- China, Russia, South Korea, the United States and Japan -- on the other. There was no comment from North Korean diplomats.
The head of the South Korean delegation, Deputy Foreign Minister Song Min Soon, also described the problem in those terms, telling South Korean reporters that the other countries voiced approval of China's suggestion and were awaiting a response from Pyongyang.
Kim, the North Korean delegation leader, has also raised the issue of South Korea's security treaty with the United States, saying it implies U.S. nuclear protection and should be altered if the talks are to produce a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula. In his first public comments, Kim told reporters Tuesday that North Korea wanted to negotiate in good faith but demanded that the United States first remove atomic weapons and other threats against the North.