Envoys to talks on North Korea's nuclear program said the possibility of a breakthrough rested solely with Pyongyang, as negotiations entered their final scheduled day Monday with dim hope for progress.
Over the previous four days, the six-country talks in Beijing have stalled over disagreements on energy assistance for the North in exchange for its abandonment of nuclear weapons.
"It is up to the North Koreans. We have put everything on the table. We have offered a way forward on a number of issues. They just need to make a decision," U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill told reporters before Monday's session.
His comments were echoed by Japanese envoy Kenichiro Sasae, whose government has been fiercely critical of North Korea, and South Korean Assistant Foreign Minister Chun Yung-woo, whose leaders have often appeared more accommodating.
Reaching an agreement "hangs greatly on the response, or final answer, that North Korea brings today," Sasae said.
The current round of six-nation talks began on a promising note after the United States and North Korea signaled a willingness to compromise. But negotiations quickly became mired on a single issue - the amount of energy assistance North Korea would be awarded for disarming.
"There is no dissent among the chief delegates that we need to draw a conclusion, an outcome, today," said South Korea's Chun.
Host China, seeking a last-minute deal, met separately with the North Korean and U.S. delegations Monday morning before the Americans and North Koreans were set to hold one-on-one talks.
But Pyongyang was giving few signs it would compromise, a South Korean official said Monday afternon. "North Korea's position is still not within a range acceptable to us," the official said on condition of anonymity because of the ongoing diplomacy.
Adding pressure on the delegates was a sense that failure to reach an agreement this time could permanently doom the talks.
The negotiations - which include the two Koreas, the U.S., Japan, China and Russia - have plodded on intermittently for more than three years.
Washington and Tokyo, in particular, have questioned the usefulness of continuing without results.
"There's a certain life cycle to these negotiations," Hill said Monday. If North Korea rejects the current proposal, the American diplomat speculated that there would "be some political climate change, if not in the U.S., then maybe among some other countries."
But he added, "I don't want to predict that this is the last chance."
Negotiators had hoped the latest round would result in North Korea taking its first concrete steps in dismantling its nuclear program, an issue that became especially critical after the North conducted its first nuclear test explosion in October.
South Korean and Japanese media reports gave varying accounts of how much energy North Korea was demanding, from 2 million kilowatts of electricity to 2 million tons of heavy fuel oil.
Japan's Kyodo News agency reported late Sunday that North Korea wanted 1 million tons of oil annually before disarming, and 2 million tons every year afterward, the AP reports.
The issue that had previously stalled the talks - U.S. financial restrictions against a Macau bank with North Korean accounts - was not an obstacle this time.
Japan's Asahi Shimbun newspaper reported Monday that the U.S. told North Korea last month it is prepared to proclaim that US$11 million (EUR 8.5 million) in Pyongyang's assets at the bank was legitimately earned, and was not related to alleged North Korean crimes including counterfeiting and money laundering.
The move would allow the money to be released from accounts frozen after Washington blacklisted the bank in 2005.