North Korea has agreed to temporarily suspend nuclear tests, long-range ballistic missile launches and other nuclear activities, including enrichment of uranium. U.S. and North Korean officials announced the surprise breakthrough after talks in Beijing.
The announcement came just a little more than two months after the death of the secretive communist state's supreme leader Kim Jong Il.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says that while there still are profound concerns about North Korea's behavior, the announcement reflects progress. "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 on to the path to peace by living up to its obligations. Today's announcement represents a modest first step in the right direction," she said.
The White House also welcomed the announcement, calling it a "positive step," but stressed that the U.S. is looking for North Korea to follow through with action.
Washington says it is ready to move forward with plans to provide the North with 240,000 metric tons of food aid over a period of a year. The two sides still need to work out the details before deliveries of the aid can begin.
Floods and a poor harvest last year have caused widespread hunger in North Korea. In the 1990s, the impoverished state suffered a major famine, which is believed to have killed hundreds of thousands of people.
U.S. and North Korean officials say that in addition to a moratorium on missile and nuclear tests, the North has agreed to allow United Nations inspectors with the International Atomic Energy Agency access to nuclear facilities so they can verify and monitor the suspension of uranium enrichment activities.
IAEA inspectors were kicked out of North Korea in 2009 when the country withdrew from the so-called six-party talks on ending its atomic weapons program.
According to the new agreement, Pyongyang will allow inspectors access to its main facility at Yongbyon and other nuclear sites. U.S. officials also say inspectors will confirm the disabling of the 5-megawatt reactor at Yongbyon and its related facilities.
A U.S. official speaking on condition of anonymity says the steps North Korea has now agreed to, open the door to serious negotiations and wider talks on ending its nuclear weapons program.
Pyongyang conducted nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009. It raised new concerns when it confirmed that it had a uranium enrichment program, in November of 2010. The uranium program could give the North another way to make nuclear weapons in addition to its longstanding plutonium-based program.
Analysts say that while the steps North Korea has agreed to are moving in the right direction, the announcement is not a significant breakthrough.
"A cynical take on it would be that the U.S. is paying additional economic benefits simply for North Korea's agreement to affirm previous agreements that it has already signed its name to three times in the six-party talks," said Bruce Klingner, a senior research fellow for Northeast Asia at the Washington D.C.-based Heritage Foundation. "That said, it does provide a means for perhaps re-opening the diplomatic route, but overall there is very little optimism in the Executive Branch and both parties in Congress and experts both within and outside of government that even a resumption of the six-party talks will be successful in the sense of getting North Korea to actually give up their nuclear weapons."
The announcement comes just days after U.S. and North Korean representatives met in China to discuss the resumption of the six-party talks. The meeting was the first since the authoritarian state transferred power to Kim Jong Il's untested young son Kim Jong Un.