North Korea Agrees to Halt Nuclear Program

BEIJING -- North Korea agreed Monday to stop building nuclear weapons and allow international inspections in exchange for energy aid, economic cooperation and security assurances, in a first step toward disarmament after two years of six-nation talks.

The chief U.S. envoy to the talks praised the breakthrough as a "win-win situation" and "good agreement for all of us." But he promptly urged Pyongyang to make good its promises by ending operations at its main nuclear facility at Yongbyon.

"What is the purpose of operating it at this point?" said U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill. "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 before leaving for Washington.

The agreement clinched after seven days of talks aimed at setting out general principles for the North's disarmament. Envoys agreed to return just over a month later, in 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 the 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.

Hill said they did not foresee inspectors scouring the country to find the nuclear programs, noting Pyongyang had voluntarily entered into the agreement.

"We do not plan to go out onto the landscape of [North Korea] and start hunting for nuclear facilities. We expect those to be shown to us and we expect to move quickly," he said.

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 six-party 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 agreement acknowledges the North has "stated" as such, but does not elaborate.

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 the other countries at the talks would not 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 a light-water reactor" to North Korea.

North Korea has 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 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 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 is believed to have enough radioactive material for about a half-dozen bombs from its publicly acknowledged plutonium program, but has not performed any known nuclear tests.

 Federal Atomic Energy Agency chief Alexander Rumyantsev said on Monday that Russia was ready to build a nuclear power station for North Korea as part of energy assistance, Itar-Tass reported.

"We do build nuclear power stations abroad, we could do the same in North Korea," Rumyantsev was quoted by Itar-Tass as saying. "Everyone knows about the energy shortage in North Korea; therefore, we must act quickly."