SEOUL, South Korea – The two Koreas set up a meeting Thursday to discuss resuming high-level talks, the first sign of tensions relaxing on the divided peninsula after North Korea signed a breakthrough nuclear disarmament agreement.
Besides committing North Korea to halting its nuclear programs in exchange for oil, the accord calls for efforts to normalize relations with regional powers and establish a permanent peace between the two Koreas, which technically remain at war.
"What is very important about this agreement," South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun said, "is that it not only resolves the North Korea nuclear issue itself, but in a further step, it includes a clause for discussions, negotiations on establishing a permanent peace regime on the Korean Peninsula."
The United States intervened on the South's behalf when the North invaded in June 1950. The two sides fought to a standstill and the conflict ended with the signing of an armistice in July 1953. U.S. forces have remained in the South ever since.
North Korea abruptly pulled out of Cabinet-level talks with South Korea in July after South Korea condemned the North for test-firing seven missiles, including one theoretically capable of hitting the U.S. West Coast. The chances of the talks resuming looked even more remote after North Korea proved its claim to possess nuclear weapons with an underground test in October.
Thursday's meeting in North Korea's border city of Kaesong reflects South Korea's belief that "South-North relations have to be normalized," South Korean Unification Ministry spokesman Yang Chang-seok said Wednesday. "We will focus on resuming the ministerial talks at the earliest possible date."
The pact reached Tuesday among six nations marks a turnabout for North Korea, which expelled international inspectors and restarted its only operational nuclear reactor in 2003.
The deal requires the communist nation to halt its nuclear programs in exchange for oil and other assistance. However, it does not expressly require the North to give up existing weapons.
In a sign that the agreement could already be in trouble, North Korea's official news agency failed to mention that it calls for the country's full nuclear disarmament. It said that the North would receive 1 million tons of oil for merely a "temporary suspension" of its nuclear facilities.
It wasn't clear whether the report represented an attempt by the government to backtrack on the deal, or was simply bluster. The communist government has talked up its nuclear prowess, distracting North Koreans from their extreme poverty while boosting national pride.
It will likely take years to carry out the disarmament, during which the deal could unravel, pulled apart by differing agendas of its signers — the U.S., two Koreas, China, Russia and Japan.
"These talks represent the best opportunity to use diplomacy to address North Korea's nuclear programs," President Bush said. "They reflect the common commitment of the participants to a Korean peninsula that is free of nuclear weapons."
The accord sets a firm 60-day timetable for North Korea to seal its main nuclear reactor, allow international inspectors and begin accounting for other nuclear programs. Within that time, more talks are planned on ending the hostilities between North Korea and the United States and Japan.
In return, North Korea will receive 50,000 tons of heavy fuel oil, a modest down payment on a promised 1 million tons in oil or aid of a similar value if it ultimately disarms. One million tons of oil is more than two-thirds of North Korea's entire oil consumption in 2004, according to the CIA Factbook.
Christopher Hill, the main U.S. envoy at the nuclear talks, said the aid package was worth about $250 million at current prices.
During negotiations, envoys debated who would pay for the package. China, the U.S., South Korea and Russia agreed to foot the bill though Moscow may contribute in the form of debt relief. Japan has refused to provide aid until Pyongyang fully accounts for the abductions of Japanese citizens by North Korea.
Disarmament, however, is likely to remain the thorniest problem. No timetable was set for a final declaration by North Korea of all its nuclear programs and their ultimate dismantling.
North Korea has sidestepped previous agreements. It allegedly operated a uranium-based weapons program even as it froze a plutonium-based one, sparking the latest nuclear crisis in late 2002. The country is believed to have countless mountainside tunnels in which to hide projects.
The uranium program was not explicitly addressed in the agreement. But, Hill said, "I certainly have made very clear repeatedly that we need to ensure that we know precisely the status of that."