U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, left, speaks to reporters in Beijing, China, Monday, Feb. 12, 2007. Envoys from the U.S., Japan and South Korea said that any breakthrough in talks over North Korea's nuclear program depended on the response Monday from Pyongyang. The negotiations have entered a fifth day but so far have failed to overcome disagreements on energy assistance to the North in exchange for it giving up its nuclear program. (Elizabeth Dalziel/Associated Press) ((Elizabeth Dalziel/Associated Press))

Six countries reached a tentative agreement Tuesday on initial steps toward North Korea's nuclear disarmament, which could usher in the first concrete progress after more than three years of talks.

The U.S. envoy to the talks, Christopher Hill, emerged in the early morning hours of Tuesday looking weary after a marathon 16-hour negotiating session and announced that a tentative deal had been struck at the latest round of six-party talks on the North's nuclear program.

The draft agreement contained commitments on disarmament and energy assistance along with "initial actions" to be taken by certain deadlines, Hill said. Working groups will be set up, hopefully in a month, laying out a framework for dealing with regional tensions, the assistant secretary of stateadded.

He declined to give further details of the draft.

The agreement could herald the first step toward disarmament since the talks began in 2003. The process reached its lowest point in October when North Korea conducted its first nuclear test explosion, alarming the world and triggering UN sanctions.

In the last few days, the talks had appeared to be on the verge of foundering, and envoys made clear that their frustration was increasing and their patience growing thin. The current round was to conclude on Monday but as they progressed toward a deal, negotiators extended it late into the night and then into the early hours of Tuesday.

Hill said the draft agreement still must be reviewed by the home governments of the six countries at the talks, but he was upbeat about its chances. He said he was in "constant communication" with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

"We feel it's an excellent draft; I don't think we're the problem," he said.

North Korea did not immediately make any public comment, but South Korean envoy Chun Yung-woo said he believed the proposal would be acceptable to Pyongyang.

Chun said the five other countries agreed to evenly share the
energy aid outlined under the deal.

However, Japan and Russia were more noncommittal. Japanese envoy Kenichiro Sasae said it was "too early to tell" whether Tokyo was satisfied. And Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Losyukov said there were "many questions regarding details," Russia's Itar-Tass news agency reported.

Hill said the parties to the talks will meet again later Tuesday.

In September 2005, North Korea was promised energy aid and security guarantees in exchange for a pledge to abandon its nuclear programs. But talks on implementing that agreement snarled on other issues and that plan went nowhere.

Hill has repeatedly said he hoped a resolution would help improve stability in a region filled with bitter historical disputes. The two Koreas remain technically at war since their 1950-53 conflict ended in a cease-fire that has never been replaced by a peace treaty.

"We're trying to do more than just do denuclearization for energy," Hill said. "We're trying to address some of the underlying problems."

Though he did not provide specifics, a key demand from North Korea has been improved relations with the United States. Japan and North Korea remain fiercely antagonistic, in part because of North Korea's acknowledged but unresolved abductions of Japanese citizens.

Under a 1994 U.S.-North Korea disarmament agreement, the North was to receive 500,000 tons of fuel oil a year before construction was completed on two nuclear reactors that would be able to generatetwo million kilowatts of electricity.

That deal fell apart in late 2002 when the U.S. accused the North of conducting a secret uranium enrichment program, sparking the latest nuclear crisis.