North Korea ready to disarm - 13 February, 2007

Six countries reached a tentative agreement Tuesday on initial steps toward North Korea's nuclear disarmament that could usher in the first concrete progress after more than three years of talks marked by delays, deadlock and the communist country's first nuclear test explosion.

The U.S. envoy to the talks, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, said the tentative deal on the North's nuclear program was supported by the U.S. government.

"Yes, we've approved it, to the best of my knowledge we've approved it," Hill said, adding the North Koreans had seen the same text.

The Chinese said the North Koreans "went over every word of it," Hill said.

North Korean delegates were speaking Tuesday to superiors in Pyongyang about the proposal and had not yet made their position known, a Japanese Foreign Ministry official said on condition of anonymity due to the ongoing talks.

The draft agreement contained commitments on disarmament and energy assistance along with "initial actions" to be taken by certain deadlines, Hill said earlier.

He declined to give further details of the draft struck after a marathon 16-hour negotiating session, the AP reports.

The New York Times reported that the draft called for North Korea to complete the "permanent disablement" of its main nuclear facilities at Yongbyon within 60 days.

The newspaper said the U.S., South Korea and China would provide aid under the deal.

The Japanese newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun said the North would get an initial aid supply worth 50,000 tons of heavy oil after it shuts down the reactor and allows international inspectors. North Korea would get an additional 950,000 tons upon completing that first step and agreeing to disable its nuclear facilities, it said.

Left for later discussion would be what to do with the atomic weapons the North now is believed to possess — a half-dozen or more by expert estimates. The deal also reportedly fails to address the additional uranium enrichment program that Washington accuses North Korea of having.

All six heads of delegations met Tuesday morning, where they made some "suggestions of technical changes, but the draft was virtually concluded," a South Korean official said on condition of anonymity. A full session of negotiators was expected later Tuesday.

The agreement could herald the first step toward disarmament since the talks began in 2003. The process reached its lowest point in October when North Korea conducted its first nuclear test explosion, alarming the world and triggering U.N. sanctions.

The accord would also set up working groups expected to discuss issues including normalizing relations between countries and finally establishing a permanent peace settlement to replace the cease-fire that ended the Korean War in 1953.

The draft agreement still must be approved by the other governments in the talks — China, North Korea, Japan, Russia and South Korea, the AP reports.

In September 2005, North Korea agreed to a joint statement sketching out the nuclear disarmament steps Pyongyang needed to take to secure fuel and economic aid, as well as political acceptance from its key adversary, the United States.

But the negotiations lost momentum after Washington accused the North of counterfeiting U.S. currency and other illicit activities. Pyongyang boycotted the talks until worldwide condemnation of its nuclear test drew it back in December, Reuters reports.

Source: agencies

Prepared by Alexander Timoshik

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Author`s name Alex Naumov