BEIJING – North Korea (search) agreed Monday to dismantle nuclear weapons and its atomic facilities in exchange for energy aid, economic cooperation and security assurances, a breakthrough that marked a first step toward disarmament after two years of six-nation talks.
The chief U.S. envoy praised the development as a "win-win situation" and "good agreement for all of us." But he promptly urged Pyongyang, which also agreed to international inspections, to make good on its promises by ending operations at its main nuclear facility at Yongbyon (search).
"What is the purpose of operating it at this point?" said Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill (search). "The time to turn it off would be about now."
Despite the deal's potential to help significantly ease friction between the North and the United States after years of false starts and setbacks, Hill remained cautious.
"We have to see what comes in the days and weeks ahead," he said.
President Bush called it a positive step, but he expressed some skepticism about whether North Korea will live up to its promises.
"They have said — in principle — that they will abandon their weapons programs," Bush said. "And what we have said is, 'Great. That's a wonderful step forward.' But now we've got to verify whether that happens."
"The question is, over time will all parties adhere to the agreement," Bush said.
The agreement clinched seven days of talks aimed at setting out general principles for the North's disarmament. Envoys agreed to return in early November to begin hashing out details of how that will be done.
Then, the hard work of ensuring compliance will begin, officials attending the talks said.
"Agreeing to a common document does not mean that the solution to our problems has been found," said Japan's chief envoy, Kenichiro Sasae.
Another Japanese official, who spoke on condition he not be named in order to discuss the issue more freely, noted that there was no common understanding among the participants about the nature of North Korea's nuclear program.
The head of the U.N. nuclear nonproliferation agency welcomed North Korea's decision to allow inspections, saying he hoped his experts could take the country at its word as soon as possible.
"The earlier we go back, the better," said Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Hill and other envoys said the timetable for inspections had not yet been set, although they want compliance as soon as possible.
According to a joint statement issued at the talks' conclusion, the North "committed to abandoning all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs and returning at an early date" to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards.
"The six parties unanimously reaffirmed that the goal of the six-party talks is the verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula in a peaceful manner," the statement said.
Responding to Pyongyang's claims that it needs atomic weapons for defense, North Korea and the United States pledged to respect each other's sovereignty and right to peaceful coexistence, and also to take steps to normalize relations.
"The United States affirmed that it has no nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula and has no intention to attack or invade [North Korea] with nuclear or conventional weapons," according to the statement, in assurances echoed by South Korea.
The talks, which began in August 2003, include China, Japan, Russia, the United States and the two Koreas.
The negotiations had been deadlocked over North Korea's demand to keep the right to civilian nuclear programs after it disarms, and the statement acknowledges the North has made such an assertion but doesn't go beyond that.
North Korea had also demanded that it be given a light-water nuclear reactor at the latest talks — a type less easily diverted for weapons use — but Washington had said it and other countries at the talks wouldn't meet that request.
Putting aside the question for now, the statement said: "The other parties expressed their respect and agreed to discuss at an appropriate time the subject of the provision of light-water reactor" to North Korea.
The North will have to build trust by fulfilling all its pledges before that issue would be discussed, said Sasae, who is director of the Asia and Oceania Bureau at Japan's Foreign Ministry.
North Korea has also refused to totally disarm without getting concessions along the way, while Washington has said it wants to see the weapons programs totally dismantled before granting rewards. The statement, however, says the sides agreed to take steps to implement the agreement "in a phased manner in line with the principle of 'commitment for commitment, action for action.'"
The other countries at the talks said they were willing give energy assistance to the North, including a South Korean plan to deliver electricity across the heavily armed border dividing the peninsula.
"This is the most important result since the six-party talks started more than two years ago," said Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Wu Dawei, Beijing's envoy.
North Korea was promised two light-water reactors under a 1994 deal with Washington to abandon its nuclear weapons. That agreement fell apart in late 2002 with the outbreak of the latest nuclear crisis, when U.S. officials said North Korea admitted having a secret uranium enrichment program.
The North is believed to have enough radioactive material for about a half-dozen bombs from its publicly acknowledged plutonium program, but hasn't performed any known nuclear tests to prove its capability. In February, the North claimed it had nuclear weapons.
Japan and North Korea also said in the statement they would move to normalize relations regarding "the outstanding issues of concern." The reference appears to allude to Tokyo's concerns over its citizens that the North has admitted abducting.