The unexpected agreement by North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program, announced yesterday in Beijing, followed decisions by both the Pyongyang government and the Bush administration to compromise on positions they had clung to during nearly three years of crisis over North Korea's nuclear ambitions.
The document signed by North Korea, the United States and the other participants in the six-party nuclear disarmament talks opened the way for what all sides say will be lengthy negotiations on the actual dismantling of North Korea's nuclear weapons program.
The breakthrough accord followed a compromise proposed by China aimed at persuading both countries to sign a document of principles. The Bush administration dropped its opposition to North Korea receiving a light-water nuclear reactor in the future, a softening of its position that the demise of the North's nuclear ambitions must be "irreversible." North Korea said it would give up its nuclear weapons and all of its existing nuclear programs, would rejoin the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and would allow inspections again by the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency.
President Bush cautiously welcomed the agreement as "a step forward in making this world a more secure place" but warned that "we expect a verifiable process."
In an immediate demonstration of the difficulty ahead, the official North Korean news agency early today quoted an unnamed Foreign Ministry spokesman as asserting that Pyongyang would not give up its weapons program until it received nuclear reactors from the United States. A State Department official shrugged off the statement, saying the focus would remain on the Beijing declaration.
The declaration came nearly three years after the Bush administration confronted the Pyongyang government with accusations of a secret uranium enrichment program, which U.S. officials said nullified a Clinton-era agreement to freeze its nuclear activities. Since then, in a separate program, North Korea is estimated by U.S. officials to have harvested enough plutonium for at least nine nuclear weapons. The North has declared it possesses nuclear arms, but no weapons tests have been detected.
Several key issues were deferred or avoided through diplomatic sleight of hand, such as the Bush administration's demand that North Korea admit the existence of the uranium project. The agreement contained no clear timeline for when the North would give up its nuclear programs, or how.
But by finally signing an agreement, North Korea took a major step toward securing international acceptance. The move, analysts said, will allow the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Il, to hang on to power for the foreseeable future and will gradually open the nation to foreign investment and avoid a sudden collapse of one of the world's most isolated nations.
For the Bush administration, analysts said, the agreement was welcome at a time when the war in Iraq has lost support at home and negotiations with Iran over its nuclear programs have sputtered. In addition, the president's approval ratings are low in the wake of his administration's response to Hurricane Katrina.
"It's an all-front crisis for the Bush administration," said Kongdan Oh, an expert on the North Korean nuclear program at the Institute for Defense Analyses in Alexandria. "I think they thought, hey, North Korea is a small country and maybe we can handle it if we put it to the side for a while." But she said she did not believe North Korea would ever give up nuclear weapons, "its platinum trump card."
Surprisingly, diplomats said, the main sticking point in this round of negotiations was not persuading North Korea to make the paramount commitment to give up nuclear weapons and research. Rather, they explained, it was North Korea's side demand for a light-water reactor to produce electricity in return for giving up the other programs.
The United States adamantly opposed the demand, saying the North could not be trusted because it already had converted the Yongbyon reactor into a source of weapons-grade plutonium. The only possible outcome, U.S. negotiators said, was agreement to complete, verified abandonment of all nuclear programs.
China sought to bridge the gap, playing its leadership role as sponsor of the talks. Chinese diplomats proposed language according North Korea the right to a reactor for electricity production but implying that it could invoke that right only after dismantling its weapons program and rejoining the international nuclear inspection regime.
For two days, U.S. diplomats refused to embrace the Chinese suggestion. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, the chief U.S. negotiator, told reporters several times he was insisting that all ambiguity be removed, refusing to open the way for problems in interpretation.
During the standoff, Hill was in frequent telephone contact with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and Rice in turn discussed what to do with other senior officials in the U.S. government, said a senior U.S. diplomat involved in the negotiations, joking that their involvement could be seen as "adult supervision." As China became increasingly firm that the compromise on the table was the best bargain possible, he said, the administration finally relented on Sunday.
"We didn't want to lose the agreement over this," he explained. The decision to make a final concession was approved at the highest level of U.S. government, he added, referring to President Bush.
U.S. officials stressed that significant obstacles remained in securing the ultimate end of North Korea's programs, and they insisted that any concessions were relatively minor. The Bush administration's Korea policy has long been troubled by conflicts between officials skeptical that a diplomatic solution could be found and those eager to strike a deal. Those conflicts could reemerge in talks over implementation.
The administration envisions what one senior official described yesterday as a "very intrusive verification regime that will go well beyond what is required" by the IAEA. "It's going to be tough getting there," he said. "This is an important step, but I don't think anyone is overselling this" agreement as a major diplomatic achievement.
Bush administration officials are wary of any comparisons between this week's agreement and a failed pact reached with North Korea by the Clinton administration in 1994. That agreement called for the building of two light-water reactors.
Before expelling international inspectors in late 2002, the secretive North was reluctant to allow access for U.N. inspection teams assigned to monitor its nuclear programs under the 1994 accord. Kim's government has even restricted World Food Program officials from monitoring distribution of food aid.
The statement was signed by North Korea, the United States and the four other participants in the talks -- China, Russia, Japan and South Korea. The six-nation talks have been sponsored by China since August 2003. But they made little progress until Rice became secretary of state this year and assigned Hill, who played a key role in negotiating the Dayton accords that ended the Bosnia war.
Diplomats from the six nations recessed immediately after their signing session, promising to return to Beijing in early November to start talks in which Hill said verification procedures would be the priority. He indicated the next step would be determining how the United States and other nations can confirm that North Korea is shutting down its Yongbyon research reactor and dismantling its weapons program.
Hill, in a telephone interview as he was changing planes in Chicago, said, "Verification is a big deal that has yet to be worked out." He said the importance of the agreement was that "we got them on the record in an international deal. . . . I am not prepared to be cynical about it."
Specialists pointed out that North Korean diplomats were likely to seek immediate economic and energy aid in return for each step toward verification.
"At the moment, we still can't be sure of Kim's intentions," said Hajime Izumi, a professor at Japan's University of Shizuoka. "They have bought some time to consider seriously whether they will give up all their weapons and programs . . . but there are so many points along the road in which this process could again reach a stalemate that it's simply too early to celebrate."
U.S. officials say North Korea in an October 2002 meeting acknowledged the existence of a secret uranium enrichment program designed to become another source of weapons material. North Korea has since denied that.
Although that issue was not mentioned in the document, U.S. officials said it is covered by the pledge to dismantle "all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs" and by a separate reference to a 1992 agreement with South Korea, which prohibited uranium enrichment.
A good first step, Hill suggested, would be shutting down the Yongbyon reactor, which produces plutonium. Under the accord signed yesterday, it must be taken apart, he said, so it makes little sense to keep it running. "The time to turn it off is about now," he added.
One long-term incentive in the joint agreement was the call for the United States and Japan to "take steps to normalize relations with North Korea" if the Pyongyang government gives up its weapons program. Such a historic rapprochement could mean billions of dollars worth of economic assistance from Japan alone in belated World War II-era reparations.
Cody reported from Beijing. Correspondent Anthony Faiola in Tokyo contributed to this report.