BEIJING - China sounded a pessimistic note yesterday on six-way international talks over North Korea's nuclear ambitions, acknowledging that negotiations were bogged down by "differences, difficulties and contradictions."
Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao indicated that North Korea, the United States and four Asian negotiating partners were struggling over the language of a communique expected to be released today. It would - at a minimum - call for the creation of a working group to continue the talks, which are meant to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear programs in exchange for aid and security assurances.
Talks are expected to end this morning.
Without offering details, Liu said the gaps between the different sides were being "narrowed gradually," but if a document can't be produced by the expected end of the meeting today, "we should not say the talks were a failure."
This round of negotiations - the second among the six parties - was never expected to achieve a breakthrough in the 16-month standoff, but there seem to be several benchmarks for success that three days of talks apparently have not yet achieved.
The first was the agreement on continued negotiations.
The second was to extract an admission from North Korea that it was pursuing not only a plutonium-based nuclear weapons program but also one that uses highly enriched uranium. The U.S. government says North Korea confessed in 2002 to pursuing the uranium program, but Pyongyang has since denied making the statement.
The Bush administration argues that any deal must address both nuclear programs, and officials said before this round of talks that it would be difficult to proceed with negotiations without an acknowledgment from North Korea that it is pursuing more than one program.
South Korean Deputy Foreign Minister Lee Soo Hyuck told reporters that deputy delegation chiefs were working to find a "common denominator on fundamental questions."
"You can say that it is a difficult process," he said.
The United States, working with South Korea, China, Japan and Russia, demands that North Korea submit to a "complete, verifiable and irreversible" dismantling of its nuclear programs in exchange for what it seeks: a security assurance that the United States will not attack and extensive economic aid.
After months at loggerheads, South Korea proposed a timetable at this meeting in which North Korea would freeze and then dismantle its programs and begin accepting compensation in the form of energy aid.
Officials have not spelled out details of what is being discussed in talks, and the United States has kept quiet about whether it thinks there has been progress or a continued standoff. Other delegates have offered vague characterizations of what is being discussed, resulting in contradictory signals.
North Korea has added to the confusion by saying it is willing to trade away its nuclear weapons program but complaining that a "hard-line" American position is thwarting success.
The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.