U.S. optimistic about nuclear agreement with North KoreaWASHINGTON The U.S. envoy to the six-party talks with North Korea brushed aside on Wednesday the North's complaints that Washington was blocking efforts for a nuclear agreement, saying that North Korean negotiators had shown a "seriousness of intent" that left him hopeful that an agreement might be reached as soon as next month.
The envoy, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, said that the parties had begun, in talks in Beijing, to hammer out basic principles as a first step toward a possible breakthrough.
"We are hoping that if we can get through these principles, we can get going with an actual agreement in September, or the latest in October, and see if we can finally put this terrible problem to bed," he said.
Emphasizing a seriousness in the North Korean approach, he appeared to discount a comment Tuesday by Kim Kye Gwan, the chief North Korean negotiator, that it was "up to the U.S. to change its policy" and drop its insistence that the North give up its nuclear ambitions.
Hill made his comments in a briefing before a group of mainly Asian reporters at the Foreign Press Center in Washington. They appeared slightly more upbeat than comments made a day earlier to mostly American reporters.
On Wednesday, he played down new speculation that the North might be drawn into an agreement if the other parties - the United States, China, Japan, Russia and South Korea - allowed it to have a so-called light-water reactor, a type that cannot easily be used to make weapons-grade fuel.
He said it was difficult for Washington to advance full trust to North Korea after it broke its earlier nuclear commitments a few years ago. "They turned a research reactor in two short months into a weapons-producing machine," he said.
But Hill suggested that a larger problem might be that no negotiating partner was prepared to pay the multi-billion-dollar cost of a light-water reactor.
The top South Korean negotiator to the talks, which are set to resume in Beijing on Aug. 29, said Wednesday that he would urge the other parties to allow the North to have a peaceful nuclear program, Reuters reported from Seoul.
"Our position is that North Korea should abandon its nuclear program and then we will adjust differences to pave the way for them to pursue a peaceful nuclear program as a sovereign state," Deputy Foreign Minister Song Min Soon said.
North Korea, so energy-starved that it appears almost totally blacked out in nighttime satellite photographs, insists that it has a right to develop peaceful nuclear power. Other participants in the talks fear it may seek to develop nuclear weapons that might reach their territory on long-range missiles.
South Korean officials have said that they could support a peaceful North Korean program only if North Korea gave up the pursuit of nuclear weapons and agreed once again to respect terms of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and of the International Atomic Energy Agency, whose inspectors it expelled.
Song said that North Korean negotiators had never demanded light-water reactors but had phrased their request in a way that could include them.
Hill said, however, that a light-water reactor would pose a problem for the United States, and so pursuing the discussion about such a reactor risked being a diversion.
"It's our view that they do need to dismantle all their programs," he said. "This is a country that had trouble keeping a peaceful program peaceful."
He added: "No one else is prepared to pay for a light-water reactor."
Still, Hill said, "I don't want to put the entire onus on that" as the sole holdup in talks so far.
Overall, Hill appeared intent on sending a positive message about the tone taken by the North Koreans in the 13 days of talks held after a 13-month suspension initiated by the North. "Their willingness to come back is important," he said. "There's a real desire to make some progress."
The United States has a large stake in two parallel sets of nuclear negotiations, the other being those that three European countries are conducting with Iran. Both North Korea and Iran insist on keeping civilian nuclear programs, and the Europeans, with U.S. support, last week proposed accepting such a program in Iran, so long as it remained under close supervision.
Washington opposes such a program for North Korea. Asked whether there had been any complicating interplay between the two sets of negotiations, and whether the Koreans had used this to gain leverage, Hill replied, "It is hypothetical because they haven't done it." Hill again assured North Korea that Washington respected its sovereignty and had no intention of attacking it.
Asked how far the American side was prepared to go toward normal relations if a nuclear accord is reached, Hill replied, "If this nuclear obstruction can be removed from the road, we can go pretty far on that road."