China announced Monday that negotiators from six nations have reached agreement under which North Korea pledged to dismantle its nuclear arms program in return for recognition and aid from the United States and its Asian allies.
Although it included only general terms, the accord marked the first specific agreement since the six-party negotiations opened under Chinese sponsorship in August 2003. It was designed to serve as the basis for further talks on the timing of the taking down of North Korea's nuclear weapons program and the corresponding provision of economic aid and diplomatic relations and other inducements for the government of Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang.
Although only preliminary, the agreement was a triumph for China, which has undertaken to host and referee the talks on a major Asian security problem. The mission has been a new exercise in leadership for China, emerging as a regional leader after years of standing on the sidelines and preaching non-interference in other countries' affairs.
The agreement came on the seventh day of the current round of negotiations, which had been deadlocked and appeared headed into another standoff.
The agreement was reached on the basis of a compromise proposal put forward by China in an effort to bridge differences between the United States and Pyongyang over a North Korean demand for a light-water nuclear reactor to produce electricity. The compromise suggested that North Korea be accorded the right in principle to peaceful nuclear energy, but only after dismantling its nuclear weapons program and rejoining the U.N. nuclear inspection regime and the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
The Chinese foreign minister, Li Zhaoxing, had spoken by telephone Sunday night with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the official New China News Agency reported, in what was believed to be an effort to solicit U.S. flexibility. Rice also conferred with other foreign ministers of the six nations represented here, according to Christopher Hill, assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific and the chief U.S. negotiator.
The Chinese compromise proposal was introduced Friday, the fourth day of this round of talks, after it became apparent that North Korea would not accept an earlier draft agreement that contained no mention of its demand for a light-water reactor to produce electricity as part of any accord on abandoning its nuclear weapons program. Diplomats said the new draft offered North Korea the right in principle to use nuclear energy to produce electricity in the future, after it had dismantled its nuclear weapons program and rejoined the international nuclear inspection regime.
The agreement was announced in a statement issued by the Chinese Foreign Ministry.
"The DPRK stated that it has the right to peaceful uses of nuclear energy," the statement said, using the initials for North Korea's official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. "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 the DPRK."
Those terms represented a concession by the United States, which has insisted since talks resumed last Tuesday that North Korea could request an electricity production reactor only after fulfilling all other commitments in the agreement, including the dismantlement of its nuclear arms program and readmitting U.N. inspections to the country.
The Chinese announcement did not make clear the terms under which this dispute was settled or set aside.
"The DPRK committed abandoning all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs and returning at an early date to the treaty on the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons (NPT) and to IAEA safeguards," the statement said, referring to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency.
The accord under negotiation was designed as a statement of principles for a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula, a goal all six nations say they are committed to. It was to serve as a basis for more detailed talks in the future.
Before the agreement was announced among China, the United States, North and South Korea, Japan and Russia, two of them, South Korea and Russia, had signaled approval of the Chinese compromise proposal. But the United States and North Korea, the main antagonists since the first round of talks more than two years ago, continued to insist on changes and clarifications. Japan in the past has aligned its position with that of the United States.