SEOUL — North and South Korea, in talks that began here Wednesday, moved closer to an agreement to ban nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula, with the premiers of the two nations presenting draft proposals to create a nuclear-free zone.
Both sides, long bitter rivals, also spoke of mutual inspections to ensure that neither would manufacture, possess, store or use nuclear weapons.
The prospect of such an accord underscored a quiet decision by the Bush Administration to permit North Korean officials to inspect U.S. military facilities in South Korea, meeting what Pyongyang has called its last condition for ending its much-criticized nuclear program.
Nuclear development has become a pivotal issue because of wide concern, based on Western intelligence, that North Korea is just two to three years away from building a nuclear bomb.
Although North Korea signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1985 and insists that it is not developing nuclear arms, it has refused to sign a safeguard agreement allowing the International Atomic Energy Agency to inspect its facilities and verify that assertion.
North Korea indicated a more flexible stance on the issue Wednesday.
"The United States has declared that it will withdraw its nuclear weapons from South Korea, and we also will accept nuclear inspection," North Korean Prime Minister Yon Hyong Muk said in his opening remarks.
That echoed statements late last month by North Korea's Foreign Ministry and its ambassador in Beijing that Pyongyang would agree to mutual inspection when U.S. nuclear weapons are withdrawn from the south.
South Korean Prime Minister Chung Won Shik proposed a joint declaration for a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula under which north and south would accept full international inspection of all nuclear facilities, have no nuclear arms or any nuclear-reprocessing and uranium-enrichment facilities.
Chung also proposed that, apart from IAEA inspection, the two nations agree on mutual inspections to ensure a nuclear-free area.
Despite the new developments, there are important obstacles to a final agreement. South Korea's insistence, for example, that nuclear-reprocessing and uranium-enrichment facilities in North Korea be destroyed is a demand that Pyongyang may be hesitant to accept.
North Korea, in turn, has demanded the withdrawal of the 39,000 U.S. troops from South Korea, an end to America's "nuclear umbrella" protecting the south and a halt to U.S.-South Korean joint military exercises. These are all demands that Seoul has rejected.
Still, analysts are hopeful about an agreement. "The two proposals are very close," said Han Sung Joo, a political science professor at Korea University. "These talks hold a lot of possibility."
Critical to the recent change in North Korea's position, Han said, was pressure from the United States, the Soviet Union and Japan on the politically isolated north to accept inspection of its nuclear facilities.
North Korea's economy is a shambles, and it is particularly eager to get economic aid from Japan. North Korea's refusal to sign a nuclear safeguard agreement was a major obstacle to improving ties with Japan.
Also key to North Korea's change of heart, Han said, was Washington's announcement earlier this fall that it would remove nuclear weapons from South Korea. In its proposal, South Korea offered to allow the north the right to inspect American bases in South Korea, including Kunsan Air Base where nuclear bombs reportedly were kept in the past, to verify that nuclear weapons are not being stored there.
A senior Defense Department official confirmed this week that the United States has decided to allow the north to make nuclear inspections on American bases in South Korea, saying: "I would suspect that the north would not accept any less than having free access in South Korea. . . . If the north will agree that they will not build nuclear weapons, and if they will not move forward with (nuclear) reprocessing, I think it would be very difficult for us to object" to North Korean inspections of U.S. facilities in South Korea.
A key aim of the proposal for mutual inspections would be to ease North Korean fears that their country could be subject to an attack from U.S. nuclear warheads in South Korea.
The United States is said to be removing its nuclear weapons from South Korea, a move that may be completed in time for an official announcement when President Bush visits Seoul in early January. U.S. officials have refused to confirm or deny these withdrawal reports appearing in the South Korean press.
But Thomas Robinson, a Korea specialist at the American Enterprise Institute, said the American goal is that, by the time Bush arrives in Seoul, the nuclear weapons "are gone." Thus, Robinson said, whenever North Koreans inspect the U.S. bases, "they won't find anything there, because there won't be anything."