N. Korea Nuclear Pact Marks Tentative Breakthrough

North Korea's agreement to abandon its nuclear weapons program was greeted with cautious optimism by major world powers. North Korea stands to gain economic assistance and improved relations with the United States. But the draft agreement is vague, and the goal of nuclear disarmament remains far off.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

North Korea's agreement in principle to abandon its nuclear weapons program was greeted with cautious optimism by the major world powers today. President Bush said it was a formula which we all hope works.

BLOCK: If Pyongyang ends its weapons program the North would receive economic assistance and gain improved relations with the United States. The draft agreement is vague and the goal of nuclear disarmament remains far off. Still, as NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Beijing, diplomats now are more hopeful about reaching that goal.

ANTHONY KUHN reporting:

Only yesterday it looked as though the fourth round of talks in more than two years would end without progress. The whole process of the six-party talks was in danger of being discredited as ineffective. The US expressed impatience and a willingness to impose sanctions if the talks failed. But in the end, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Wu Dawei emerged from the talks and read a statement that the six parties had agreed to.

Mr. WU DAWEI (Chinese Vice Foreign Minister): (Foreign language spoken)

KUHN: North Korea, he said, promised to give up all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs and return at an early date to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards. North Korea expelled United Nations inspectors and pulled out of the treaty in 2002. The statement is similar to a compromise solution that China suggested on Friday. The statement says that the US has no intention of attacking or invading North Korea and that the two sides will begin the process of normalizing diplomatic relations. It also reaffirms South Korea's offer to provide two million kilowatts of electricity if the North scraps its nuclear programs.

(Soundbite of ambient noise at hotel)

KUHN: At a downtown hotel the US chief negotiator, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, told reporters that an important agreement had been reached and that Washington would firmly hold Pyongyang to its side of the deal.

Mr. CHRISTOPHER HILL (United States Assistant Secretary of State): We need to take the momentum of this agreement and work to see that it's implemented and work, I think, to make clear to everybody that all of our commitments, all of our undertakings that are spelled out in this agreement are, in fact, fulfilled.

KUHN: One of the biggest obstacles in the negotiations has been sequencing: whether Pyongyang disarms first or the US provides security guarantees first. Today's agreement says nothing about the order of events, but Hill insisted that the North Koreans know they have to make the first move.

Another stumbling block was that Pyongyang had recently demanded light-water nuclear reactors to generate electricity. The US had rejected this idea, but today's agreement said the subject could be discussed in the future, quote, "at an appropriate time."

Hill said North Korea, officially known as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, may have made concessions today out of a realization that nuclear arms would not make their country safer.

Mr. HILL: The security, the success, the prosperity of the DPRK does not depend on nuclear weapons. In fact, it depends on relations with others.

KUHN: Analysts say that more likely the concessions were the result of China and South Korea applying diplomatic pressure to Washington and Pyongyang, telling them to either be flexible or risk the talks breaking up. John Park is a research fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University. His concern is that the diplomats may have spent all their political capital just to get an agreement on principles, leaving little leverage for the more challenging negotiations ahead.

Mr. JOHN PARK (Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard University): Having laid out their credibility, having made their compromises and so forth, it also has stretched the countries, I think. The moment that they enter into a difficult point, be it on the verification or the sequencing or the human rights, there is the danger of going back to square one. So the statement, while remarkable, is also a very fragile one.

KUHN: The contentious details of implementing today's agreement will come up when the six parties meet for a fifth round of talks in early November. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.

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