BEIJING (Reuters) - A groundbreaking plan to curtail North Korea’s nuclear arms ambitions in return for energy aid and security assurances edged toward approval on Tuesday as envoys to six-party talks waited for Pyongyang to give its nod.
The two Koreas, the United States, Japan, Russia and China had “resolved the technical issues in the agreement”, Xinhua news agency reported, but a diplomatic source at the talks said North Korea had not yet responded “formally” to the draft deal.
A final announcement was likely at 0830 GMT at the Diaoyutai state guest house, a tightly guarded complex set in gardens in west Beijing.
The proposed plan would be only the first step in locating and dismantling North Korea’s nuclear arms activities, leaving many crucial questions to future negotiations.
“This is only one phase of denuclearisation. We’re not done,” chief U.S. negotiator Christopher Hill said.
As details of the draft began to leak out, Japan already voiced doubt that any agreement could be made to stick and a prominent U.S. conservative decried it as a “very bad deal”.
The talks in Beijing have focused on how to begin implementing a September 2005 accord that offered Pyongyang aid and security assurances in return for dismantling its nuclear arms capabilities. Acting on that deal now could end years of confrontation that culminated with a first nuclear test last October.
A diplomatic source close to the talks said that under the draft deal, North Korea would receive energy aid of 50,000 tonnes of heavy fuel oil in return for shutting down the Yongbyon nuclear facilities and accepting international inspectors.
North Korea would receive additional energy aid of 950,000 tonnes of heavy fuel oil for declaring and “disabling” all of its nuclear-related facilities, the source in Beijing told Reuters.
All up, the fuel would be worth around $320 million - $340 million at current prices for Asian benchmark high-sulphur heavy fuel oil, which is used in power stations, shipping and elsewhere.
The United States would contribute to the infusion of oil and aid for North Korea, meaning that President George Bush must win Congressional approval for the deal, the New York Times reported.
Criticism had already started. John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said the Communist state should not be rewarded with “massive shipments of heavy fuel oil” for only partially dismantling its nuclear program.
“It sends exactly the wrong signal to would-be proliferators around the world,” Bolton told CNN.
North Korea stepped down the path to nuclear disarmament before, in a 1994 agreement with the Clinton administration that also promised aid.
But that Joint Framework agreement fell apart amid accusations of bad faith between Pyongyang and Washington, and the agreement collapsed in late 2002 after Washington accused North Korea of seeking to produce weapons-grade uranium.
A gulf of distrust divides the isolated North from others in the talks, especially the United States. Diplomats have stressed that even this new initial disarmament action could founder.
“This is a first step,” Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Aso told U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in a telephone call, Kyodo reported. “Whether it actually goes ahead remains to be seen. We do not know whether it will go ahead just because it has been signed.”
In North Korea, the state news agency gave no clue as to the thinking of officials and instead accused the U.S. of intensifying military tension in the region and of planning aggression against Pyongyang even as it sought dialogue.
“The U.S. attitude...is a criminal act aimed at hindering and scuttling the dialogue,” KCNA said. “The daily escalating moves of the U.S. to provoke a new war in Korea compel the people of the DPRK to bolster military deterrent to defend the country’s sovereignty.”
Hill said Pyongyang’s envoys appeared to understand what they may sign up for but he did not know if they would finally approve the deal. Some analysts were pessimistic about how far North Korea will bow in future talks.
“The key question is whether North Korea is really willing to disarm, to go beyond the 1994 agreement,” said Zhang Liangui, an expert on the North at a key Beijing think-tank. “I’m not optimistic. I’ve never seen an intention to really abandon nuclear weapons.”
Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard, Nick Macfie, Lindsay Beck, Ian Ransom and Teruaki Ueno in Beijing