US and North Korean diplomats were to hold a rare bilateral meeting yesterday with a US offer of conditional aid and security guarantees aimed at breaking a deadlock in the nuclear crisis topping the agenda.
The US offer presented at the opening in Beijing on Wednesday of the third round of six-party talks has produced faint hopes of progress for the first time in the 20-month-old impasse over North Korea's nuclear ambitions.
Pyongyang has yet to respond and few expect a breakthrough.
Negotiators from North and South Korea, the US, Russia, China and Japan held a second day of closed-door talks at the exclusive Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing and broke up for bilateral meetings in the afternoon.
US and North Korean negotiators would meet on the sidelines, a South Korean diplomat told reporters. Similar encounters at the two previous rounds of talks have yielded little. The six-way talks are scheduled to end on Saturday.
Completing a policy reversal first mooted early this year, Washington has presented a plan to allow other nations to supply energy aid and said it might consider giving North Korea assurances that it would not be attacked.
In return, the communist state would have three months to provide a full listing of its nuclear activities, disable some dangerous materials and allow monitoring, senior US officials said in outlining the proposal.
The plan would be difficult for North Korea to swallow, because Pyongyang wants concessions from the US that would enable it to retain a nuclear program for peaceful purposes, said Noriyuki Suzuki, a Korea expert at the Radiopress news agency in Tokyo.
Pyongyang has been as entrenched as ever, restating its goal of rewards for a freeze alone and urging the US to soften its "hostile" stance. Its state media carried the usual torrent of criticism of the US.
Mitoji Yabunaka, Japan's chief negotiator, said Tokyo would join other countries to provide energy aid if the implementation of the freeze was confirmed, a foreign ministry statement said.
"The freeze itself is not our purpose. The ultimate goal is the scrapping of the nuclear programs," Yabunaka said.
The US offer was the most significant overture to Pyongyang since President George W. Bush took office and branded the North part of an "axis of evil" alongside Iran and pre-war Iraq.
The plan hinges on North Korea making the strategic decision to abandon its suspected programs -- something it has refused to do in previous negotiations.
If it did, energy-starved North Korea would immediately receive fuel oil from South Korea, a senior Bush administration official said. There was little expectation North Korea would accept the US offer, he added.
The goal of the US proposal was less about breaking the impasse and more about satisfying its ally South Korea, which has been pushing for concessions to the North, he said.
Japan also pressed for progress, warning "the credibility of the six-party process" was at stake if no headway was made.
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