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North Korea nuclear accord may be a historic turning point

BEIJING—The watershed six-party accord concluded Tuesday with North Korea holds huge long-term promise for the Korean Peninsula and beyond, but pitfalls lie ahead.

It could put an end to the Korean War with a peace treaty half a century after hostilities ended, establish diplomatic relations between the United States and North Korea and lay the groundwork for a new security arrangement for Northeast Asia.

It also could lessen tensions between rivals China and Japan by making them work closely on a common aim.

But even with so much at stake, the underlying suspicions among most parties to the accord and North Korea's track record as a truculent neighbor make implementing the initial steps a challenge.

"It's not the end of the process, it's the beginning," U.S. envoy Christopher Hill said.

The commitment to provide abundant fuel oil to North Korea in exchange for steps toward dismantling its nuclear program follows a tight script over the next 60 days.

By mid-April, a series of parallel actions is supposed to occur. North Korea is to list all of its nuclear programs and shut down the reactor that provided the material for the nuclear device it detonated last autumn. The United States and three other nations are to start supplying it with energy.

Gulping hard, perhaps, the United States also promises to lift financial sanctions against North Korea and stop labeling it a rogue sponsor of terrorism.

U.S. officials will be watching carefully when North Korea offers its list of its nuclear programs. Did North Korea come clean? The world knows it has a plutonium program. Did it reveal a secret uranium bomb-making program that Washington alleges it has?

North Korea will have suspicions of its own: Will the United States lift all financial sanctions and be sincere in its security guarantees? Will President Bush really offer diplomatic recognition to a dictatorship that he's known to loathe?

Japan also could throw a wrench into the accord. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Tuesday that his nation wouldn't join China, Russia, the United States and South Korea in giving fuel oil to North Korea until Pyongyang resolved a few cases of Japanese citizens whom North Korea's security agents snatched in decades past.

Even as potential problems loomed, envoys were in a buoyant mood with the signing of the historic accord after more than three years of often-faltering talks.

"This shows that the mechanism of the six-party talks is promising and full of vitality," China's chief negotiator, Wu Dawei, said at a final ceremony.

"Obviously we have a long way to go but we are very pleased with this agreement," U.S. envoy Hill said later. "We feel it is a very solid step forward."

Washington will act within 30 days to remove financial restrictions imposed on a Macau bank that it's accused of laundering cash and counterfeit bills for Pyongyang, Hill said.

The four-page accord calls for phased steps over the next 60 days to be conducted simultaneously. They require:

_North Korea to "shut down and seal" its Yongbyon nuclear facility as well as another reprocessing plant, and to invite monitors from the International Atomic Energy Agency to conduct verification.

_The United States to begin talks with North Korea aimed at "moving toward full diplomatic relations." It also must begin terminating severe trade restrictions on Pyongyang and lifting its designation as a state sponsor of terrorism.

_Japan and North Korea to begin talks to normalize relations and deal with the "settlement of unfortunate past and the outstanding issues of concern."

During the initial 60-day period, the United States and the other regional powers will provide energy assistance "equivalent to 50,000 tons of heavy fuel oil."

After that, once North Korea disables "all existing nuclear facilities," it will receive "economic, energy and humanitarian assistance" up to the value of another 950,000 tons of heavy fuel oil.

The value of the total energy package at current market prices is $240 million.

Within 30 days, five "working groups" are to form and meet. Two are to tackle North Korea's relations with the United States and Japan, a third is to focus on denuclearization issues, and a fourth is to discuss economic and energy cooperation. The fifth group is to study a new security mechanism for Northeast Asia.

The accord foresees Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and the five other foreign ministers trying to midwife a peace treaty for the Korean Peninsula and a broader mechanism "promoting security cooperation in Northeast Asia."

North and South Korea remain technically at war because a formal peace treaty never has been signed to replace the armistice that ended the fighting in 1953.

At one point last Friday, when huge energy demands by North Korea had the talks near collapse, Hill approached his North Korean counterpart, Kim Kye-gwan, and told him about a Korean ceramic cup that he keeps on his desk. When the cup is overfilled, all the water drains out, leaving nothing.

"I said, `You've got to be careful what you're asking for because you might not get a deal,'" Hill recalled.

Later, Hill said he and other negotiators realized that North Korea might be willing to reach a deal if it got a million tons of fuel oil.

Washington first designated North Korea a state sponsor of terrorism in 1988, a legal designation still in effect that restricts foreign aid, bars military sales, imposes export controls and slaps on miscellaneous financial restrictions.

Washington said Pyongyang protected a Japanese Red Army Faction terrorist who took part in the 1970 hijacking of an airliner to North Korea, and may have sold weapons to Muslim Filipino rebels. It's also accused Pyongyang of exporting missiles to other rogue regimes and taking part in the global trafficking of narcotics and bogus cigarettes.

While the timeline for the accord is tight, the onset of the weeklong lunar New Year festival Sunday will slow activities.

For their part, North Korean negotiators reportedly were racing back to Pyongyang in time for celebrations Friday marking leader Kim Jong Il's 65th birthday.


(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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