BEIJING – Any breakthrough in talks over North Korea's nuclear programs depends on its response Monday to offers of energy aid, envoys from the U.S., Japan and South Korea said.
The negotiations entered a fifth and what some envoys said would be a final day. Over the previous three days little progress was made in overcoming disagreements on energy assistance for the North in exchange for its abandonment of nuclear weapons.
"It is up to the North Koreans. We have put everything on the table. We have offered a way forward on a number of issues. They just need to make a decision," U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill told reporters before Monday's session.
His comments were echoed by Japanese envoy Kenichiro Sasae, whose government has been fiercely critical of North Korea, and South Korean Assistant Foreign Minister Chun Yung-woo, whose leaders have often appeared more accommodating.
Reaching an agreement "hangs greatly on the response, or final answer, that North Korea brings today," Sasae said.
The current round of six-nation talks began on a promising note after the United States and North Korea signaled a willingness to compromise. But since the second day, envoys have said negotiations were becoming stuck on a single issue — the amount of energy assistance North Korea would be awarded for disarming.
"There is no dissent among the chief delegates that we need to draw a conclusion, an outcome, today," South Korea's Chun said.
Adding pressure on the delegates was a sense that failure to reach an agreement this time could doom the talks for good. The negotiations, which are hosted by China and include Russia, have plodded on intermittently for more than three years. Washington and Tokyo in particular have questioned the usefulness of continuing without results.
Negotiators had hoped that this round would result in North Korea taking its first concrete steps in dismantling its nuclear program — especially critical since it conducted its first nuclear weapons test in October.
South Korean and Japanese media reports gave varying accounts of how much energy North Korea was demanding, from 2 million kilowatts of electricity to 2 million tons of heavy fuel oil. Japan's Kyodo News agency reported late Sunday that North Korea wanted 1 million tons of oil annually before disarming and 2 million tons every year afterward.
A newspaper linked to North Korea's government said Sunday that the U.S. had agreed at talks in Germany last month to lift restrictions within 30 days on a Macau bank where the North's government held accounts — the issue that deadlocked the last round of nuclear talks. In return, the North would take first steps to disarm in 60 days, the Japan-based Choson Sinbo said, citing an unnamed source.