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Chinese propose deal to end North Korea's nuclear-arms standoff

U.S., Koreans given one day to reject, accept plan

BEIJING — China proposed a new compromise solution to the North Korean nuclear standoff and gave the countries involved in the talks one day to accept or reject the offer, but there were mixed signals on Friday about whether the United States and North Korea were prepared to come to terms.

Under the new proposal — Beijing's fifth such attempt to reach an agreement in the latest round of talks — North Korea was promised the right to retain a peaceful nuclear energy program and to receive a new light-water reactor at some point. The proposal also reflects U.S. demands that any such steps occur after North Korea dismantles its nuclear weapons, according to diplomats who were briefed on the proposal, but who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.

The new draft prompted a flurry of excitement in Beijing after three days of stalemate in the six-nation nuclear talks, but by late Friday it appeared uncertain whether it would help North Korea and the United States bridge their differences.

North Korea issued a strong statement late in the day in which it insisted that it must receive a new reactor before it abandoned its nuclear weapons program, a sequence the United States has repeatedly dismissed as unacceptable.

"The U.S. is demanding that we give up our nuclear deterrent facilities first," said a spokesman for North Korea, Hyun Hak Bong. "I think this is such a naive request. Our response is: Don't even dream about it."

He said North Korea required nuclear weapons because it had to defend itself against the United States, which he said had singled out his country for a "pre-emptive strike."

Earlier, after meetings with the North Koreans and the Chinese, the chief U.S. negotiator, Christopher Hill, sounded a more optimistic note. He suggested that China had pushed the North Koreans to soften their position. But he warned that the talks were so far inconclusive.

"At this point, I don't know where this will lead," Hill said. "We're still in business."

Hill declined to comment on the talks late Friday. The United States accused North Korea of violating a previous agreement to end its nuclear program in 2002. Talks have been under way since 2003 to reach a new agreement, but so far they have failed to achieve even a broad statement of principles.

The main sticking point in this round involves North Korea's demand for a light-water reactor, which it claims to need to produce electricity. It has rejected a South Korean offer to send electric power across the border to North Korea, even though Seoul says it could double North Korea's electricity supplies in short order that way.

North Korea was promised a light-water reactor in a 1994 accord, now defunct. In the latest talks it is demanding the reactor first.

The United States has sent mixed signals about whether North Korea could get a new reactor at some point. But it has made it clear that it could not do so before North Korea ends its nuclear program and readmits international inspectors.

The Russian delegate at the talks, Alexander Alekseyev, said the latest agreement had "compromise wording which could satisfy both sides" and held out hope that an accord could be reached Saturday.

It is unclear what will happen if this round of talks fails. Asian diplomats said the Chinese were eager to keep the talks alive, perhaps by declaring another recess and reconvening the negotiations in the near future. But the United States has said the talks cannot go on indefinitely.