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Now, a hopeful sign from one of the world's most secretive and unpredictable nuclear powers. North Korea has agreed to suspend uranium enrichment and missile tests. At the same time, the U.S. says it will provide food aid. The agreement should set the stage for a new round of nuclear disarmament talks.

But analysts caution that this is a small first step, as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: State Department officials returned from three days of talks in Beijing with a deal meant to improve the atmosphere for a resumption of so called six-party talks. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton outlined the deal at a House hearing today.

SECRETARY HILLARY CLINTON: North Korea has agreed to implement a moratorium on long-range missile launches, nuclear tests, and nuclear activities at Yongbyon, including uranium enrichment activities.

KELEMEN: She says North Korea has also agreed to allow in inspectors. The U.N.'s nuclear watchdog says it is ready to resume its inspections.

For its part, the U.S. is promising to finalize a food aid package which had been put on hold last year when North Korea's longtime leader died and his son came to power.

CLINTON: On the occasion of Kim Jong-il's death, I said that it is our hope that the new leadership will choose to guide their nation onto the path of peace by living up to its obligations. Today's announcement represents a modest first step in the right direction.

KELEMEN: Florida Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who chairs the House Foreign Relations Committee, doesn't sound impressed.

REPRESENTATIVE ILEANA ROS-LEHTINEN: We must recall that regime's constant duplicity. We have bought this bridge several times before.

KELEMEN: She told Secretary Clinton that she's worried about the signal the U.S. is sending by announcing the food deal and the nuclear agreement at the same time.

ROS-LEHTINEN: The North Korean will view this food as payment due to their return to the bargaining table, regardless of the transparency and monitoring we hope to secure in the future.

KELEMEN: North Koreans wanted to have rice and grains, but U.S. officials feared that could just end up on banquet tables. So instead, they're giving what they call nutritional assistance.

One former U.S. negotiator, Victor Cha, also has concerns about the apparent quid pro quo but says the deal makes sense because the world is so concerned about North Korea's uranium enrichment.

DR. VICTOR CHA: It's not sort of a major breakthrough, but I think it is important because we have not had eyes on this nuclear program now for over five years. This allows us to at least get a foot in the door.

KELEMEN: Cha, who now teaches at Georgetown University, says he's not expecting any quick resumption of six party nuclear disarmament talks, though. He says there's just too much tension between North and South Korea.

CHA: I'm in Seoul right now and the North Koreans have been spewing all this rhetoric about how they're going to, you know, bomb the country and all this sort of stuff. In the past, we'd just say that's rhetoric, you know, they've done it before. But it's in entirely different context now, because it's a new leadership and we have no idea what this guy thinks. And we know he's hot-headed and we know he's, you know, only 20-something years old.

KELEMEN: Victor Cha, author of a forthcoming book about North Korea called "The Impossible State," says there are a couple of reasons for today's deal. North Korea wants to demonstrate that its leadership is stable and the U.S. wants to avoid another crisis there in an election year.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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