BEIJING/KUALA LUMPUR Envoys in Beijing on Wednesday worked towards a deal to press North Korea to disable nuclear facilities by the end of the year, while the U.N. atomic watchdog confirmed a key atomic complex was now locked.
The International Atomic Energy Agency said North Korea had now shut five main nuclear facilities at Yongbyon. As well as a reactor already confirmed shut on the weekend, they included an atomic fuel reprocessing plant that can extract the plutonium that Pyongyang used for its first nuclear test-blast last year.
"Yes, we now verify that all the five nuclear facilities have been shut down," Mohamed ElBaradei, the IAEA chief, told reporters in the Malaysian capital. Staff from the agency arrived in North Korea on the weekend to verify and monitor the closures.
In Beijing, six-party talks aimed at ending North Korea's nuclear ambitions were focused on the next disarmament steps -- permanently crippling the nuclear facilities and getting a full catalogue of all the North's atomic activities.
Those talks have brought together North and South Korea, the United States, China, Japan and Russia since 2003, and concrete progress long eluded them.
But in February, North Korea agreed to close Yongbyon in return for 50,000 tons of heavy fuel oil, which began moving there from South Korea last week.
Under "phase two" of that agreement, the North will get 950,000 more tons of oil in return for "disabling" its atomic facilities and coming clean on its nuclear secrets.
Negotiators sounded hopeful that a chairman's statement by host China at the end the two-day talks on Thursday would set a date for completing the second phase, possibly by the end of 2007.
"I think what you'll see tomorrow is that we've got an overall schedule -- a target date -- for completing second phase activities," the chief U.S. nuclear envoy Christopher Hill told reporters after a day of talks.
"There was a lot of agreement around the table about what needs to be done in this phase," he said.
Earlier, Hill had suggested aiming to complete disablement and the declaration by the end of 2007.
On Wednesday, he declined to tell reporters whether the proposed statement used that date. But a diplomatic source close to the talks said the other countries had pressed North Korea to declare all its nuclear programs within six months,
"Kim Kye-gwan did not say 'no'," the source said.
"We are ready to declare all our nuclear programs and disable the existing nuclear facilities at a proper time. But for us to do so, other countries should fulfill their obligations," Kim told the meeting, according to another diplomatic source.
Despite the upbeat words, negotiators stressed that many pitfalls could stymie efforts to press forward North Korea's nuclear disarmament.
The first phase of the February agreement was delayed for many weeks by a snarl-up over bank funds North Korea demanded it receive from a Macau bank before shutting Yongbyon.
"There are a lot of technical issues still to be addressed," said Hill. "This is a very tough negotiation," he added.
Among the challenges is that North Korea can absorb only about 50,000 tons of fuel oil every month, making it near impossible for it to receive the oil aid within the disarmament timeframe expected, Hill said.
The six countries had to explore ways of giving the North the equivalent in other aid or infrastructure help, he said.
Persuading North Korea to catalogue all its nuclear activities also threatens to be painfully hard.
The declaration must address whether the North sought to enrich uranium -- an alternative route to the fissile materials for a nuclear weapon.
Washington says North Korea tried to enrich. Pyongyang has denied it, but it must account for international contacts and shipments that point to enrichment plans.
North Korea will also have to submit to international checks to verify its nuclear declaration, said Hill.
Pyongyang has rejected such checks before. After throwing out IAEA inspectors in late 2002, it quit the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
"If you're doing a declaration, you have to have some means by which to verify what is in it," said Hill.
((Writing by Chris Buckley, editing by Jeremy Laurence; Reuters Messaging: chris.buckley. firstname.lastname@example.org; +86 10 65981261)