BEIJING – International talks seeking to persuade North Korea (search) to abandon its nuclear weapons program seemed at a critical point Sunday night as the main U.S. envoy praised a new Chinese proposal but said he planned to head home Monday regardless of the outcome.
Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill (search) called the proposed agreement a "good draft" and said all the delegations at the six-nation talks would meet Monday morning to give final comments.
Hill declined to reveal specifics of the proposal. Russia's (search) envoy said earlier that it had acknowledged North Korea's right to a peaceful nuclear program after disarming — but it was not known if that draft had been revised.
Washington previously rejected allowing the North any kind of atomic program, saying Pyongyang's decades of relentlessly pursuing a nuclear bomb meant it could not be trusted.
In February, the North publicly claimed it had nuclear weapons, but it has not performed any known tests that would confirm it can make them. Experts have said they believe the North is capable of building about six bombs.
Hill said he expected to leave Beijing by Monday afternoon, the seventh day of the latest round of negotiations.
"Everyone knows each other's positions, everyone knows the agreement, everyone can almost recite it from memory at this point, so I'm not sure we have to do too much talking," Hill said. "I think we have to sort of ... put the cards on the table and see where we are."
He said the new draft was "a good effort to try to bridge the remaining differences, which I believe are difficult but certainly not insurmountable."
That was a much more optimistic stance than Hill took a day earlier, when he said several countries at the talks had problems with the document's wording.
"It's a good draft for all concerned, and I think it's especially a really great opportunity for" North Korea, he said.
Asked if there could be an agreement Monday, Hill answered: "I hope so."
Japanese envoy Kenichiro Sasae also was more optimistic.
"There is still a chance of reaching an agreement," he said.
North Korea has not directly commented on China's proposal, but after the host nation presented its first version Friday, a spokesman for the Pyongyang regime denounced efforts to get it to give up its nuclear program without concessions by the United States.
Participants have offered the North economic aid, security guarantees from Washington and free electricity from South Korea in exchange for dismantling its weapons program.
North Korea also has demanded to be given a light-water nuclear reactor for generating electricity before disarming, promising to open such a facility to co-management and international inspections.
Pyongyang was promised two light-water reactors — believed to be more difficult to use in diverting radioactive material to making nuclear bombs — under a 1994 deal, but that agreement fell apart in late 2002 after the U.S. government said the North admitted working on atomic weapons.
Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Dai Bingguo, who hosted a banquet for the chief delegates Saturday night, urged the envoys to end the "Cold War state" on the Korean Peninsula and accept what he described as the "most realistic scenario for the relevant parties to reach an accord," China's official Xinhua News Agency reported.