BEIJING – International talks on North Korea's nuclear programs resumed Thursday on a positive note, with the Chinese hosts distributing a draft agreement following just a single day of meetings after the North agreed in principle to initial steps to disarm.
A South Korean official, speaking early Friday on condition of anonymity due to the ongoing diplomacy, gave no details of the draft.
Any agreement on an initial set of reciprocal steps to implement a September 2005 accord, in which North Korea pledged to disarm in exchange for aid and security guarantees, would mark a rare breakthrough in the slow-moving six-nation process. That deal was the only agreement since the negotiations began in 2003.
The main U.S. envoy, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, said the new proposal would be "a set of actions that would have to be taken in a finite amount of time." He declined to give specifics, but noted the moves would occur in a matter of weeks.
Hill said Thursday's talks "were able to make progress in discussing denuclearization in a way that we were not able to do in December" at the last negotiating round.
"The delegations are coalescing around some of the themes that we believe should be the basis for a first step in implementing" the 2005 agreement, Hill said. "The first step of a journey is often the most difficult step, and this effort is in fact proving that."
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in Washington she was "cautiously optimistic" that the implementation of the agreement could begin.
At the last session, in the wake of North Korea's Oct. 9 underground nuclear test, the communist nation refused to even talk about its nuclear programs. Instead, Pyongyang demanded the U.S. lift financial restrictions targeting alleged North Korean counterfeiting and money laundering.
But since then, the U.S. and North Korean nuclear envoys held an unusual one-on-one meeting in Germany last month where differences between the sides were apparently broached, although no details of concessions have been made public. Pyongyang and Washington also held separate talks on the financial issue.
At the negotiations Thursday, all sides agreed that "it is important to reach agreement at this round of talks on first-phase measures," South Korea's envoy Chun Yung-woo told reporters.
The North's chief negotiator told reporters as he arrived earlier Thursday in Beijing that his country was "prepared to discuss first-stage measures."
"We are going to make a judgment based on whether the United States will give up its hostile policy and come out toward peaceful coexistence," Kim Kye Gwan said.
American experts who visited Kim in Pyongyang last week said North Korea would propose a freeze of its main nuclear reactor and a resumption of international inspections in exchange for energy aid and a normalization of relations with Washington.
North Korea and the U.S. agreed in 1994 for Pyongyang to freeze its plutonium-based nuclear reactor in exchange for energy aid. The North promised to eventually dismantle the facility following construction there of two light-water nuclear reactors for electricity -- a type more difficult to divert for weapons use.
However, that deal fell apart in late 2002 after Washington accused North Korea of a secret uranium enrichment program. The North expelled international inspectors and restarted its reactor, and is believed to have amassed enough radioactive material for at least a half-dozen bombs.
The six-nation talks -- including China, Japan, Russia, the U.S. and the two Koreas -- began in August 2003, but the North has twice boycotted them for more than a year. The latest was over a U.S. decision to blacklist a Macau bank where the North held accounts, saying it was complicit in the regime's alleged counterfeiting and money laundering.