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Diplomats Seek to Overcome Final Obstacle to Progress on North Korea Nuclear Talks

Diplomats from six nations are struggling to overcome the final obstacles to a preliminary deal aimed at ending North Korea's nuclear weapons. VOA's Kurt Achin reports from Beijing, where the negotiations are in their third day.

The chief U.S. negotiator to the Beijing nuclear talks, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, says he is cautiously optimistic about achieving progress during this latest round of talks - but he says he is still ready for surprises.

Hill and other delegates have said it is possible an agreement can be reached on a list of immediate steps the parties can take to begin the process of closing down Pyongyang's nuclear weapons programs.

Those steps were laid out in a proposal offered by the Chinese earlier this week. Hill said early Saturday that just "one item" stands in the way of agreement.

Senior South Korean negotiator Chun Yung-woo says Saturday and Sunday could finally, after three years of sporadic talks, see some real progress.

Chun confirms the six parties are growing closer in terms of an agreement, but cautions against predicting success too soon.

Delegates say the aim of the draft agreement is to start implementing a pledge North Korea made to the other five nations in September 2005, to begin its nuclear dismantlement. In return, the North was promised economic aid, security guarantees and diplomatic benefits. Japan and Russia are also party to the talks.

Pyongyang then boycotted the talks for more than a year, after the United States imposed sanctions it says are aimed at alleged North Korean money laundering and dollar counterfeiting.

U.S. negotiator Hill says the sanctions, which are being discussed in separate talks, are no longer an obstacle to progress in the nuclear negotiations.

Experts speculate that the Chinese draft agreement proposes simple first steps: Pyongyang would agree to halt its production of nuclear fuel, in return for donations of fuel oil or some other energy source.

Some major questions are likely to accompany any agreement. Washington says it wants the North's nuclear apparatus fully dismantled, not just temporarily frozen.

Kim Taewoo, senior scholar at the Seoul-based Korea Institute for Defense Analyses, says verifying that North Korea is keeping its promises will also be an issue.

Kim says without inspections by the United Nations atomic energy agency, any deal with the North will be worthless.