BEIJING - A tentative agreement Tuesday on initial steps toward North Korea's nuclear disarmament could set the stage for the first concrete progress after more than three years of talks marked by delays, deadlock and the country's first nuclear test explosion.
The U.S. envoy to the talks, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, emerged in the early morning hours of Tuesday looking weary after a marathon 16-hour negotiating session and announced that a tentative deal had been struck at the latest round of six-nation talks on the North's nuclear program.
The draft agreement contained commitments on disarmament and energy assistance along with "initial actions" to be taken by certain deadlines, Hill said. Working groups will be set up, hopefully in a month, laying out a framework for dealing with regional tensions, he added.
He declined to give further details of the draft.
The agreement could herald the first step toward disarmament since the talks began in 2003. The process reached its lowest point in October when North Korea conducted its first nuclear test explosion, alarming the world and triggering U.N. sanctions.
In the last few days, the talks had appeared to be on the verge of foundering and envoys made clear that their frustration was increasing and their patience growing thin. The current round was to conclude on Monday but as they progressed toward a deal, negotiators extended it late into the night and then into the early hours of Tuesday.
Hill said the draft agreement still must be reviewed by the home governments of the six countries at the talks, but he was upbeat about it. He said he was in "constant communication" with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
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It is pragmatic to address the issue step by step, beginning with the 1994 Agreed Framework and "freezing certain nuclear facilities in exchange for oil supply". This first step of real significance is not easily accomplished.
"We feel it's an excellent draft, I don't think we're the problem," he said.
North Korea did not immediately make any public comment, but South Korea's envoy Chun Yung-woo said he believed the proposal would be acceptable to Pyongyang.
Chun said the five other countries agreed to evenly share the energy aid outlined under the deal.
However, Japan and Russia were more noncommittal. The Japanese envoy, Kenichiro Sasae, said it was "too early to tell" whether Tokyo was satisfied. And Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Losyukov said there were "many questions regarding details," Russia's Itar-Tass news agency reported.
Hill said the parties to the talks will meet again later Tuesday.
In September 2005, North Korea was promised energy aid and security guarantees in exchange for a pledge to abandon its nuclear programs. But talks on implementing that agreement snarled on other issues and that plan went nowhere.
Hill has repeatedly said he hoped a resolution would help improve stability in a region filled with bitter historical disputes. The two Koreas remain technically at war since their 1950-53 conflict ended in a cease-fire that has never been replaced by a peace treaty.
"We're trying to do more than just do denuclearization for energy," Hill said. "We're trying to address some of the underlying problems."
Though he did not provide specifics, North Korea has demanded improved relations with the United States. Japan and North Korea remain fiercely antagonistic in part because of North Korea's acknowledged but unresolved abductions of Japanese citizens.
The current talks began Thursday on a promising note after the United States and North Korea held an unusual meeting last month in Germany and signaled a willingness to compromise.
But negotiations quickly became mired on the issue of how much energy aid North Korea would get as an inducement for initial steps toward disarmament.
"It's always 3 yards, 3 yards, 3 yards, and it's always fourth and one. Then you make a first down and do 3 more yards," Hill said early Tuesday, using a football metaphor. "It's painful."
During the days of arduous negotiations, he said "everybody has had to make some changes to narrow the differences."
Some delegates at the talks -- which also include China, Russia and South Korea -- had called North Korea's demands for energy excessive.
South Korean and Japanese media reports gave varying accounts of how much energy North Korea was demanding, including up to 2 million kilowatts of electricity or 2 million tons of heavy fuel oil.
Chinese envoy Wu Dawei told a visiting Japanese lawmaker that North Korea had agreed to shut down its main nuclear reactor and submit a list of its atomic facilities. But the size of the energy aid Pyongyang would get in return was still undecided, the lawmaker, Fukushiro Nukaga, told reporters Monday.
Under a 1994 U.S.-North Korea disarmament agreement, the North was to receive 500,000 tons of fuel oil a year before construction was completed of two nuclear reactors that would be able to generate 2 million kilowatts of electricity.
That deal fell apart in late 2002 when the U.S. accused the North of conducting a secret uranium enrichment program, sparking the latest nuclear crisis.