SEOUL, South Korea -- The United States and North Korea have reached tentative understandings at talks in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, aimed at carrying out an accord to halt the North's suspected nuclear weapons program, officials of both countries said yesterday.
But obstacles to a final agreement still remain in Seoul.
South Korean officials say the proposed accord does not go far enough in specifying that South Korea will play a central role in providing light-water nuclear reactors to the North.
In an effort to allay those concerns, President Clinton telephoned President Kim Young Sam of South Korea last week and then dispatched to Seoul Robert Gallucci, whose title is ambassador at large, and Winston Lord, the assistant secretary of state for east Asian and Pacific affairs.
They met yesterday with Mr. Kim, Foreign Minister Gong Ro Myung and other South Korean leaders.
But after a day of what Mr. Lord called "extensive and productive discussions," it appeared that South Korea has not been fully mollified.
Under the agreement signed by Washington and Pyongyang in Geneva last October, North Korea will give up its existing nuclear program, which the United States believes is aimed at developing weapons, in exchange for the modern light-water reactors that produce less of the type of plutonium that can be used to make nuclear weapons.
The United States and South Korea have insisted that South Korean reactors be used because Seoul has pledged to pay the bulk of the $4 billion for the project. But North Korea has balked at accepting technology from its archenemy.
Details of the tentative agreement in Kuala Lumpur have not been released. But the accord apparently calls for the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization, a multinational consortium led by the United States, South Korea and Japan, to decide the reactor type and its prime contractor.
While this is tantamount to choosing South Korean reactors, Seoul wants the agreement to specify in writing that South Korean reactors will be used.
Without a written commitment, South Korea is worried that North Korea will try to renege on the deal.
For South Korean leaders, using South Korean technology is not only a matter of pride.
They also see providing the reactors and contractor as an important way to avoid becoming an isolated bystander as the United States and North Korea deal with each other to carry out the Geneva agreement.
Another key issue is North Korea's demand that the United States and its allies provide training simulators, roads and other ancillary items that could add as much as $1 billion to the cost of the project.
U.S. and South Korean officials said yesterday that they had agreed that North Korea should be provided with items that are normally provided as part of such a reactor project.
This vague wording appears to leave the door open for giving North Korea some of the items it wants.