WASHINGTON — North Korea's agreement to shut down its main nuclear complex and provide a full accounting of its weapons program by Dec. 31 appears to be a significant step forward that could herald warming ties between the isolated North and the United States.
Past agreements with North Korea have collapsed amid acrimony on all sides. But this deal caps 10 months of productive diplomacy that followed North Korea's underground detonation of a nuclear device a year ago next Tuesday.
South Korea's chief nuclear envoy, Chun Yung-woo, on Wednesday called the new agreement a "milestone" on the road to denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula, which has been in a technical state of war since the 1950-1953 Korean War ended.
Chris Hill, the chief U.S. negotiator, told reporters that the agreement was "significant." But he added: "This does not resolve the North Korea nuclear issue by any means."
In a joint statement issued Wednesday by China's Foreign Ministry, North Korea agreed to shut down its Yongbyon nuclear complex by year's end and pledged to provide a "complete and correct declaration" of all its nuclear programs.
The statement followed four days of talks last week in Beijing involving North and South Korea, China, Russia, Japan and the United States.
Within two weeks, U.S experts will arrive at the Yongbyon site to oversee a foreign team that will disable a 5-megawatt reactor, a reprocessing plant and a facility for producing nuclear fuel rods, the statement said.
President Bush welcomed the agreement, saying it "maps out additional steps toward our ultimate goal of full and verifiable denuclearization."
Precisely what the United States promised in order to push forward the denuclearization of North Korea remains hazy. The statement omitted many details of what the envoys from the six nations had hammered out during the talks.
The document, using diplomatic language, appears to commit the Bush administration to removing North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism and dropping sanctions under the Trading with the Enemy Act if Pyongyang fulfills its commitments.
But the statement said only that U.S. actions would run parallel with moves by North Korea outlined in bilateral working-group talks, details of which weren't made public. It set no timetable on the U.S. actions, and Hill repeatedly refused to say if there was one.
"In all negotiations, you have to give something to get something," he said.
The United States also eased off its earlier goal of having North Korea's entire nuclear infrastructure disabled by the end of the year.
Only the Yongbyon complex will be put out of commission by year's end, although the North has pledged to disable the rest of its programs as well.
"Like a lot of things in life, you've got to make choices, and we went after the main nuclear complex at Yongbyon" first, Hill said.
Gary Samore, a former top State Department official, said the deal on dismantlement seems solid.
The debate, he predicted, will be over North Korea's promised declaration of its entire nuclear inventory, including its cache of fissile material for nuclear weapons.
"On the declaration side, there's a real question about whether this can be finished by the end of the year," said Samore, now with the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations.
Samore said the declaration will have to be verified through soil sampling and examination of North Korean archives. Disagreement between Washington and Pyongyang could stall the process.
The Bush administration also wants its concerns allayed about what officials think is a program by the North to use highly enriched uranium — not just plutonium — for its weapons.
Under the accord, Japan and North Korea pledged "specific actions" toward settling issues of "the unfortunate past" — a reference to Japan's wartime occupation of the Korean Peninsula — and other "outstanding issues" — such as Japan's bitterness that North Korean security agents snatched more than a dozen Japanese in the late 1970s and early 1980s to help teach the country's spies to speak Japanese.
The announcement came as the leaders of North and South Korea met for a landmark summit in Pyongyang, only the second such meeting since the Korean war ended.
South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun and his North Korean counterpart, Kim Jong Il, held nearly four hours of direct talks Wednesday and were expected to issue an "inter-Korean peace declaration" Thursday, which will be a broad commitment to a peace regime and easing military tensions, the semi-official Yonhap news agency in South Korea reported.
(Johnson reported from Yichang, China.)
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