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Envoys seek firm commitment from NKorea to disable nuclear facilities by year-end

Arms negotiators sought Thursday to firm up a commitment by North Korea to declare and disable its nuclear programs by the end of the year, a move that would prevent the communist nation from easily being able to make bombs again.

Delegates at the talks - which include China, Japan, Russia, the U.S. and the two Koreas - began a second day of meetings in Beijing, during which the main American negotiator said they were laying out a target date for the next steps in the North's disarmament.

The talks were originally planned to end Thursday but were extended to Friday, delegates said. A Japanese Foreign Ministry official speaking on condition of anonymity said the envoys decided they needed more time to discuss details "so that they can achieve some results."

At the opening session of the talks Wednesday, North Korea offered to meet a year-end deadline for disabling its nuclear programs and said it "would not drag its feet or make unreasonable demands in carrying out its obligations," South Korea's nuclear envoy Chun Yung-woo told reporters Thursday.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill declined to reveal the specifics of the talks, but said there had been consensus on a "target timeframe" for the declaration of the North's programs followed by the disablement of its facilities.

"We missed just about every deadline and we don't want to do that anymore," he said, referring to the frequent hiccups in the negotiating process since the standoff began in late 2002. "We have to be careful about deadlines, but if you don't have deadlines you'll never get stuff done."

The North twice boycotted talks for more than a year, and missed a deadline for shutting down its reactor by more than three months due to a separate bank dispute. Pyongyang shut down its sole operating nuclear reactor Saturday - the first step it has taken to scale back its nuclear ambitions since the crisis began.

By eventually disabling its nuclear facilities, North Korea would lose its ability to easily make more atomic bombs - going beyond achievements at any previous arms negotiations with Pyongyang.

North Korea has begun receiving 50,000 tons of oil from South Korea as a reward for the shutdown, and is to eventually receive the equivalent of a total of 1 million tons for disabling its nuclear facilities under a February agreement among the six countries.

Because the North can only receive about 50,000 tons of oil a month, Hill said other types of aid could be offered such as helping refurbish factories or storage facilities.

Hill said the U.S. also was interested in providing humanitarian aid to the North. Washington had previously been a large donor to the impoverished country, mainly through the U.N., but scaled back its contributions as the nuclear crisis sank into a deadlock.

"We're very concerned about the plight of the North Korean people and would like to see what can be done," he said Thursday.

The nuclear detente has also fostered improved relations between the two Koreas, who have taken unprecedented steps to lay aside decades of hostility since a 2000 summit.

South Korea said Thursday it had proposed another round of high-level talks with the North for early next month, where the countries typically discuss aid and economic cooperation. The North has yet to respond to the offer, Unification Ministry spokesman Kim Nam-sik said in Seoul.

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