BEIJING, (AFP) – North Korean nuclear talks entered a make-or-break day of wrangling to strike a deal on a joint document to help resolve the deadlock, with Japan saying there was still a chance for agreement.
"It will be an important day which will make-or-break this round," said chief Japanese delegate Kenichiro Sasae as he left the hotel for a meeting of the top envoys from the six countries involved.
Disagreements remain over energy-starved North Korea”s demand for the right to peaceful atomic power in return for giving up its nuclear weapons program, with the United States and Japan saying the country cannot be trusted.
The timing of concessions to North Korea in return for abandoning its nuclear arsenal is also an issue, with the United States wanting a complete and verifiable dismantling of the weapons first.
Sasae, nevertheless, said he remained hopeful a solution would be reached.
"I do believe there is a possibility of reaching an agreement. I am not sure at this moment," he said.
US envoy Christopher Hill said after a banquet hosted by China Saturday evening that another recess was possible, where the countries would go back to their governments for further advice.
Three previous rounds and a 13-day, fourth-round session failed to narrow the gap separating the United States and North Korea in a crisis now three years old. The fourth round resumed Tuesday after a five-week recess.
The standoff erupted in October 2002 when the US said North Korea was running a clandestine uranium enrichment program, prompting it to withdraw from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
China put forward a new version of a draft common document on Friday, which Russian negotiator Alexander Alexeyev said includes a reference to the North”s right to civilian nuclear programs and a light water reactor.
Delegates were given a deadline of Saturday to come back with their answers, but some countries requested more time to assess the proposal.
North Korea has not publicly commented on it yet, but has insisted it would never give up its nuclear program before getting rewards.
Russia”s Interfax news agency quoted an unnamed North Korean official as saying it "repeats the United States” position, which North Korea cannot accept".
"Therefore, another recess will likely have to be announced in the fourth round," the official told Interfax.
Despite the apparent gulf still separating them, Hill said Sunday all the negotiators were "very supportive of the document".
"The issue is the tactics of how we express elements in the document," he said. "Some delegations prefer to leave something more ambiguous. My delegation would like to see things less ambiguous."
According to Japanese sources, the chief negotiators from the two Koreas, China, Japan, the United States and Russia met for just eight minutes Sunday morning.
It was not clear what would happen next although a scheduled early morning press conference called by China was postponed.
Under a now defunct 1994 agreement, a US-led consortium was supposed to build two light water reactors for North Korea to replace its existing graphite-moderated reactors, which can produce weapons-grade plutonium.
But construction was suspended after the United States accused the North of developing a secret uranium-enrichment program. North Korea denied the charge, threw out weapons inspectors and withdrew from the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
It has since said it has nuclear bombs.