BEIJING -- Negotiations on a step-by-step deal that the Bush administration hopes will lead North Korea to give up its nuclear arms program appeared near collapse yesterday over Pyongyang's demands for huge shipments of oil and electricity before agreeing to a schedule for turning over its nuclear weapons and fuel.
The chief U.S. envoy, Christopher R. Hill, said he and North Korea's envoy, Kim Kye Gwan, had held a "lengthy and very frank" meeting yesterday. But Hill seemed much less optimistic than at the start of the five days of talks that a deal could be struck. Others in the negotiations were pessimistic that a breakthrough could emerge today, the final day of the talks.
Meanwhile, a summary of the proposed agreement being circulated among senior policymakers in Washington makes it clear that even if the North agreed to take the listed first steps - sealing its main nuclear reactor and inviting international inspectors back into the country - it would not be required to turn over any nuclear weapons or weapons fuel that it has produced in recent years for an unspecified period, and then only after reaching another agreement.
In essence, the agreement Hill is negotiating could prevent the North from producing more weapons but defers discussions over the nuclear weapons and fuel it has stockpiled.
The summary calls for all six nations in the Beijing talks - the others are South Korea, Japan, China, and Russia - to "create working groups for full and rapid implementation" of a September 2005 agreement in which the North agreed in principle to abandon its nuclear weapons. But in the past, North Korean envoys to similar working groups have proven to have no real negotiating authority. Furthermore, the proposed agreement sets no dates on nuclear action beyond shutting down the huge nuclear plant at Yongbyon and allowing inspectors in within 60 days and leaves unresolved what the North would get in return. The summary was given to The New York Times by a source trying to explain the timing and vagueness of the deal's elements.
After months of preparation that created unusual optimism within the Bush administration, failure to reach even a preliminary agreement could cast doubt on the prospects for disarming North Korea in the president's last two years in office. Asian diplomats said they feared that North Korea had sensed the American distraction in Iraq and could be trying to run out the clock until the election of a new president.
At the same time, North Korea is under pressure because of the effectiveness of financial sanctions, particularly those aimed at Kim Jong Il and other leaders, and might feel this is a good time to extract concessions from the South Korean government, which is clinging to economic ties to the North.
Hill, a seasoned negotiator who played a critical role in the Dayton accords that ended the Balkans conflict, made it clear yesterday that this round of talks, like those over the past three years, was plagued by questions of sequencing. The North has always insisted that it get rewards before giving away the nuclear capability that Kim regards as his sole bargaining chip.
The Japanese news agency Kyodo has reported that North Korea wants an annual energy package of 2 million tons of fuel oil and 2 million kilowatts of electricity for taking the first steps in the agreement. It quoted unnamed diplomatic sources who said that the North also wants a short-term infusion of hundreds of thousands of tons of fuel oil during the weeks when it shuts down its nuclear facilities at Yongbyon -though Yongbyon does not provide electric energy.
Hill, who has been viewed with suspicion by those in the Bush administration who believe the best way to deal with North Korea is through painful sanctions, said that providing fuel oil before North Korea takes further steps is too risky.
"We're not looking to provide energy assistance so that they could avoid taking the further steps on denuclearization," he said. "We understand that you can't just get there in one jump, you have to take several steps, so we're prepared to take several steps.
"But we're not interested in providing that kind of assistance so that they don't have to take the next step," he added.