'Sticking Points' Remain in North Korean Talks

Six-nation talks on North Korea's nuclear program enter a third day in Beijing, with a draft agreement that could lead to the shutdown of the nation's main nuclear reactor. Is any true progress being made?

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Coming up, the rich get richer by marrying each other. But first, another round of talks on the North Korean nuclear issue is in its third day in Beijing. Diplomats are discussing a draft resolution that would outline initial steps towards ending North Korea's nuclear weapons program.

The U.S. envoy, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, said on Friday that a couple of sticking points remain.

Mr. CHRISTOPHER HILL (Assistant Secretary of State): The sort of fundamental issues I think we're okay on. But we do have some things that are holding it up. And if it's just those things, you know, I'm still cautiously optimistic.

SIMON: NPR's Anthony Kuhn has been following the talks and joins us from Beijing. Anthony, thanks for being with us.

ANTHONY KUHN: Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: As far as you can tell, what's been resolved and what are the sticking points?

KUHN: Well, the diplomats have not said exactly what is in the draft agreement that's been circulating. And they haven't said exactly what the sticking points are. But what diplomats are saying on the sidelines is that the main idea of the draft document that the host nation China put forward is to get North Korea to shut down its main reactor at Yongbyon and to reintroduce the international inspectors that they kicked out in 2002.

And in return they'd get some sort of package, including energy assistance and some security guarantees that North Korea is looking for. Now, some diplomats have told us that things are held up over what the North Koreans call U.S. hostile policies towards Pyongyang.

In other words, the idea is that the U.S. is after regime change. And we're already in the third day of talks. They've scheduled three to four days of talks to begin with. So we could be about on course and we're hoping that there will be a result tomorrow.

SIMON: What about financial sanctions. Because talks have broken down, seemingly, over that issue before.

KUHN: That's right. They broke after the September 2005 agreement in which North Korea promised to give up its nukes. The U.S. imposed financial sanctions saying that the North Koreans were counterfeiting U.S. currency and laundering money. And with that, the North Koreans walked out of the talks.

Now they've set up a separate, parallel set of talks on that issue. And Christopher Hill said that that is not a sticking point this time. The North Koreans have come up with other demands at odd moments. They've asked for light water reactors for nuclear energy. But that, again, apparently is not one of the obstacles this time.

SIMON: Anthony, can you tell how this agreement may or may not be different from the one in 1994 that was supposed to freeze North Korea's nuclear development?

KUHN: Well, a lot of observers are saying that we've come full circle. And in a way that the formula of a nuclear freeze in exchange for energy, aid and security guarantees is very similar. Of course, the big difference is that this is a multilateral, a six-nation process, where the 1994 agreement was more of a bilateral deal between the U.S. and North Korea.

The Bush administration wants what they call a complete irreversible and verifiable nuclear disarmament. Still, there is great skepticism of, you know, no matter what North Korea may say it's going to do, many people still feel that they are counting on hanging on to their nukes as their ultimate trump card and guarantee of survival in an East Asian neighborhood of big powers.

SIMON: NPR's Anthony Kuhn in Beijing. Thanks very much.

KUHN: You're welcome, Scott.

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