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Six countries reached a tentative agreement Tuesday on initial steps toward North Korea's nuclear disarmament that could usher in the first concrete progress after more than three years of talks marked by delays, deadlock and the communist country's first nuclear test explosion.
The US envoy to the talks, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, said the tentative deal on the North's nuclear program was supported by the U.S. government.
"Yes, we've approved it, to the best of my knowledge we've approved it," Hill said, adding the North Koreans had seen the same text.
The Chinese said the North Koreans "went over every word of it," Hill said.
North Korean delegates were speaking Tuesday to superiors in Pyongyang about the proposal and had not yet made their position known, a Japanese Foreign Ministry official said on condition of anonymity due to the ongoing talks.
The draft agreement contained commitments on disarmament and energy assistance along with "initial actions" to be taken by certain deadlines, Hill said earlier.
He declined to give further details of the draft struck after a marathon 16-hour negotiating session.
The New York Times reported that the draft called for North Korea to complete the "permanent disablement" of its main nuclear facilities at Yongbyon within 60 days.
The newspaper said the US, South Korea and China would provide aid under the deal.
The Japanese newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun said the North would get an initial aid supply worth 50,000 tons of heavy oil after it shuts down the reactor and allows international inspectors. North Korea would get an additional 950,000 tons upon completing that first step and agreeing to disable its nuclear facilities, it said.
Left for later discussion would be what to do with the atomic weapons the North now is believed to possess - a half-dozen or more by expert estimates. The deal also reportedly fails to address the additional uranium enrichment program that Washington accuses North Korea of having.
All six heads of delegations met Tuesday morning, where they made some "suggestions of technical changes, but the draft was virtually concluded," a South Korean official said on condition of anonymity. A full session of negotiators was expected later Tuesday.
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.
The accord would also set up working groups expected to discuss issues including normalizing relations between countries and finally establishing a permanent peace settlement to replace the cease-fire that ended the Korean War in 1953.
The draft agreement still must be approved by the other governments in the talks - China, North Korea, Japan, Russia and South Korea.
South Korea's envoy, Chun Yung-woo, said he believed the proposal would be acceptable to Pyongyang.
"I am looking forward to hearing good news today. I hope it will be a good day for all of us," he told reporters, adding "no country had raised an objection to the principle" that the costs of the energy aid should be evenly shared.
Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Aso cautioned an agreement in itself did not signal the long-running nuclear standoff was over.
"This is only the first step, and we still have to see if concrete steps move forward," Aso said in Tokyo.
John Bolton, former US ambassador to the UN, harshly criticized the deal and urged US President George W. Bush to reject it, saying it made the United States look weak.
"I am very disturbed by this deal," he told CNN. "It sends exactly the wrong signal to would-be proliferators around the world: 'If we hold out long enough, wear down the State Department negotiators, eventually you get rewarded,' in this case with massive shipments of heavy fuel oil for doing only partially what needs to be done."
Under a 1994 US-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 US accused the North of having a secret uranium enrichment program, sparking the latest nuclear crisis that led to the six-nation talks.
In September 2005, North Korea was promised energy aid and security guarantees in exchange for pledging to abandon its nuclear programs. But talks on implementing that agreement repeatedly stalled on other issues.
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