Delegates discussing ways to scrap North Korea’s nuclear-weapons programme returned to the main talks venue late on Wednesday, fuelling speculation they would meet overnight to try to agree on basic principles for ending the three-year stand-off.
China Central Television said members of the North Korean delegation returned to the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse at about 5pm, followed by the Russian, United States and South Korean teams.
Japanese negotiators were also seen heading for the venue.
”According to predictions … the possibility of an overnight delegation chiefs’ negotiation is increasing,” the television said.
A US embassy spokesperson confirmed that a delegation led by deputy chief US envoy Joseph DeTrani had returned to the guesthouse, although she declined to say whether US chief envoy Christopher Hill was also going there.
”The North Koreans are in Diaoyutai. I’ve got to see the Chinese,” Hill told journalists as he left his hotel on Wednesday evening.
Top envoys to the six-party talks, which include host China, had been due on Wednesday afternoon to deliver final comments on a fourth Chinese draft of a joint statement on how North Korea might abandon its atomic arsenal.
But the North failed to show up for that meeting.
Diplomats insisted the talks had not broken down and Chinese officials said negotiations would continue on Thursday.
Hill told reporters the US, South Korea, Japan and Russia had made minor comments on the draft but were still waiting for North Korea’s response.
South Korea’s chief delegate, Song Min-Soon, earlier said the framework agreement centres on the communist state dismantling its nuclear weapons in return for a normalisation of ties with the US and Japan.
Yonhap news agency said it includes the provision of a security guarantee and electricity and fuel-oil aid to the impoverished North.
But it does not include a key North Korean demand, for concessions to be delivered simultaneously with the dismantling of its atomic-weapons programme, according to Japan’s Kyodo agency.
The US has persistently demanded that the North dump its weapons programmes before it gets aid and energy.
It is still uncertain whether North Korea will agree the joint statement after saying on Tuesday that the talks had failed thus far to produce any real progress.
Earlier on Wednesday, the ninth day of negotiations, Hill made it clear the marathon talks were close to ending.
”I think we are really getting to the end of this negotiating process. I am not going to predict it is over today or tomorrow, I just don’t know,” he said.
”But, certainly, in terms of the negotiating process, through this week and the past 10 days, I think we are getting to the end of this.”
Earlier, he admitted differences remain with the North, which is believed to be unwilling to acknowledge having a uranium-enrichment programme.
The crisis was sparked in 2002 when the US accused North Korea of running such a program, something Pyongyang has always denied.
North Korea raised the stakes in February when it said it already has nuclear bombs.
The fourth round of talks, which came after a break of more than a year, has been the longest since the process was initiated in 2003 and has been marked by a greater willingness on all sides to seek solutions.
So far North Korea and the US have met eight times one-on-one, a breakthrough in itself.
Japan said the onus is firmly on North Korea to determine whether the talks succeed or fail, as they have on three previous occasions.
”We wish to do all we can do to reach an agreement. It will largely depend on North Korea’s attitude, how it would act,” said envoy Kenichiro Sasae.
North Korea returned to the negotiating table after a 13-month hiatus, enticed in part by softer rhetoric from the US and pressure from close ally China. — Sapa-AFP