BEIJING (Reuters) - North Korea has agreed to disable the three main nuclear facilities at its Yongbyon site and declare all of its nuclear programs by the end of the year, in a deal hailed by Washington on Wednesday as a major step toward a denuclearized Korean peninsula.
Under the agreement reached between China, the two Koreas, Japan, Russia and the United States, the isolated state will get aid equivalent to 950,000 tonnes of heavy fuel oil and Washington will move toward taking it off a U.S. terrorism blacklist.
“The DPRK agreed to disable all existing nuclear facilities subject to abandonment (in a February agreement),” according to a statement released in Beijing on Wednesday that used the North’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
Despite the apparent progress, relations between the two Koreas at only their second-ever summit, occurring separately in Pyongyang on Wednesday, appeared to be strained, and analysts said it was unclear whether the nuclear deal would work in practice.
Under a breakthrough February deal, North Korea has shut down and sealed its Soviet-era Yongbyon nuclear plant and allowed U.N. atomic energy monitors back to the site in July.
Pyongyang, which conducted a nuclear test nearly a year ago and is believed to have enough plutonium to make at least eight or nine atomic bombs, has in return received shiploads of heavy fuel oil and held bilateral talks with the United States that could bring the fortress state out of diplomatic isolation.
Wednesday’s statement, which followed the end of the six-party talks on Sunday, said that the disablement of the three Yongbyon nuclear facilities covered in the February deal would be completed by the end of 2007.
North Korea would also provide a “complete and correct” declaration of all its nuclear programs by then.
“I welcome the agreement announced today at the six-party talks in Beijing,” U.S. President George W. Bush said in a statement.
“Today’s announcement reflects the common commitment of the participants in the six-party talks to realize a Korean Peninsula that is free of nuclear weapons,” Bush said.
White House National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe said the deal, if implemented, would end North Korea’s production of plutonium.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Chris Hill said that roughly half of the aid under the deal would be in fuel oil and the rest in improvements to North Korea’s electricity infrastructure and to its fuel storage capacity.
Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Nobutaka Machimura joined Washington in hailing the agreement, saying: “Finally it has become what Japan can value.”
While its main nuclear complex at Yongbyon is in plain view of U.S. spy satellites, intelligence sources have said the North likely has hundreds of large facilities and thousands of smaller ones underground or in mountains where it secretly works to build nuclear arms, missiles and other weapons.
Bruce Klingner, an analyst at the Heritage Foundation think tank in Washington, said he found some positive elements in the agreement but wished it were more specific.
“The State Department’s reticence in providing detail as to what is agreed to raises questions about what are they hiding,” Klingner said. “There is a need for additional treaty-like text delineating the legal requirements of all sides.”
The separate summit in Pyongyang between North and South appeared strained on Wednesday as the South’s president snubbed an invitation to stay another day and said North Korea still did not trust its neighbour.
Still, Seoul insisted the talks between Roh Moo-hyun and the North’s reclusive leader Kim Jong-il had been a success and that they would issue a statement by lunchtime on Thursday.
At the request of the other five parties to the nuclear deal, the United States will lead disablement activities and provide initial funding. It will lead an expert group to North Korea, probably next week, to prepare for disablement.
North Korea also reaffirmed its commitment not to transfer nuclear materials, technology or know-how, the statement issued in Beijing added.
But the statement skirted the issue of when the country would be removed from the U.S. state sponsors of terrorism list, one of Pyongyang’s key demands, saying only Washington would fulfil its commitments to begin that process in parallel with action on the ground.
Last week, Bush authorized $25 million in aid for the North, which would cover the cost of up to 50,000 tonnes of heavy fuel oil.
China and South Korea have delivered initial fuel shipments and Russia is expected to do so too. But Japan has indicated it will not participate unless North Korea addresses the issue of Japanese citizens the North abducted in the 1970s and 1980s.
Additional reporting by Teruaki Ueno in Tokyo, and Langi Jiang in Beijing; Arshad Mohammed and Paul Eckert in Washington