Diplomats from the United States and North Korea were scheduled to hold rare bilateral talks Thursday as part of a new round of six-party discussions in Beijing on the standoff over Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program.
According to local media reports, the two sides are still far apart over U.S. claims that North Korea has a uranium-based weapons program as well as its acknowledged plutonium-based one, and Washington's demands for an immediate dismantling of Pyongyang's nuclear program.
"North Korea will probably determine, among other things, the extent of its nuclear freeze depending on the scale of energy aid and 'compensation' and also on whether the United States will cancel the designation of North Korea as a terrorism-sponsoring state," a South Korean Foreign Ministry source was quoted as saying by Japan's Jiji Press.
However, Jiji said in a commentary that the turning point for the discussions would come if the two sides could explore ways to make progress from North Korea's offer to freeze its weapons program in a verifiable way, to complete disarmament.
Other media reports said North Korea had offered to verifiably freeze facilities at its main nuclear complex as a first step toward their dismantlement. The offer was contained in a six-point proposal that the communist state unveiled at the opening session of six-party nuclear talks that opened in Beijing Wednesday, Japan's Kyodo News Service said.
Kim Kye-kwan, the North's chief delegate and vice foreign minister, said that the proposed freeze would cover a 5-megawatt reactor and other facilities at the Yongbyon complex, about 90 kms north of Pyongyang, Kyodo said, citing unidentified sources.
Meanwhile, Japanese diplomats appeared pessimistic ahead of the bilateral meeting, as the China-brokered talks--which also include South Korea, Japan, China, and Russia--entered their second day.
"It seems to me that regarding issues related to uranium enrichment, the thinking of the two sides does not agree at all," Hiroyuki Hosoda told reporters in Tokyo.
Pressure has been building for movement towards a solution to the crisis that erupted in October 2002 when North Korean officials revealed they had a nuclear weapons program.
According to Kyodo, Kim made it clear that the freeze would "entail inspections," but he "expressed reservations about scrutiny by the International Atomic Energy Agency." Kim proposed that the mode of inspection be decided at the six-nation talks, Kyodo said.
During Wednesday's opening meeting, the United States and South Korea offered a set of incentives for North Korea to abandon all of its nuclear program based on both plutonium and highly enriched uranium.
The United States and South Korea offered similar incentives, offering energy and other economic rewards plus phased-in security guarantees in step with the North's moves to scrap its suspect nuclear weapons facilities.