The United States and key Asian allies have reached agreement on a document that would lay out the path to a negotiated end to North Korea's nuclear program. The issue is being discussed in Washington this week with Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, whose government is serving as a go-between with Pyongyang.
U.S. officials say the statement, negotiated over the last few days with Japan and South Korea, is not in itself intended to settle the nuclear issue.
But they say it would propose a set of "coordinated steps" under which Pyongyang would get multi-lateral security assurances as it begins a verifiable dismantling of its nuclear program.
They are hopeful that the statement, being conveyed to North Korea by the Chinese government, will be substantive enough to induce Pyongyang to take part in another round of six-party talks on the nuclear issue, if not later this month, then sometime early in the new year.
At a news briefing, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher declined to provide details of the draft document but said it would affirm the United States' readiness to be a party to security pledges to the North Koreans.
"It deals with the process whereby North Korea would completely, verifiably and irreversibly dismantle its nuclear weapons programs, and whereby the six parties could provide security assurances to North Korea as they did that," he said. "Not all elements of that process would necessarily be defined at this point. What role particular organizations or inspectors might have down the road, some of that will be set down the road."
The comments came in advance of an evening meeting here between Secretary of State Colin Powell and Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao that was to begin the official portion of his U.S. visit.
The Chinese official is to meet President Bush at the White House Tuesday for talks that will also include global issues and Taiwan.
China, which hosted an initial inconclusive round of six-party talks on the nuclear issue in August, had pressed for the statement on principles for another round and a Chinese envoy was to have delivered the U.S.-Japanese-South Korean draft to the government in Pyongyang Monday.
U.S. officials said they did not rule out the possibility they might hear a North Korean response during Mr. Wen's visit, but said that was doubtful, given Pyongyang's deliberate handling of such matters in the past.
The Bush administration has ruled out the formal non-aggression treaty North Korea had been demanding in return for an end to its nuclear program.
But President Bush confirmed in October his readiness to take part in security guarantees with the other parties to the talks with Pyongyang, China, Russia, South Korea and Japan, if the North dismantled its weapons program.
The precise sequencing of such an arrangement is not being publicly discussed here and would presumably be the crux of further negotiations.
Spokesman Boucher said the convening of another round may still be possible this month and that the United States, for its part, is ready to attend "without any preconditions."