In an unexpected development, North Korea has agreed to abandon all its nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs. The agreement came as part of a statement of principles reached on the seventh day of six-nation negotiations in Beijing. Just a few days ago the talks appeared to be on the verge of collapse.
U.S. envoy Christopher Hill emerged from final session calling Monday "a great day," saying the agreement amounts to a "win-win situation" for North Korea and the other five nations involved.
He praised North Korea, or the DPRK, for agreeing to end more than two decades of nuclear activities.
"It's a big decision for them, a big undertaking. But it's absolutely the right decision for them," said 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. So this is a moment which I think will be a very important moment in their history."
The statement of principles says all parties - including North Korea - reaffirmed that their common aim is to get rid of nuclear weapons on the Korean peninsula in a verifiable manner.
It also said North Korea, in addition to abandoning its nuclear programs, will work to return to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and abide by international atomic safeguards, including inspections.
North Korea receives a number of concessions it has been seeking, including a commitment from the United States and Japan that they will take steps to normalize relations with Pyongyang.
The statement contains an assurance from the United States that Washington has no nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula and does not intend to attack North Korea with nuclear or conventional weapons.
North Korea also is to receive economic aid from its negotiating partners and massive amounts of conventional energy from South Korea.
Word of the unexpected agreement came after days of a deadlock over North Korea's demands for others to pay for a light water nuclear reactor - a demand the United States opposed. In the statement, all sides said they respect Pyongyang's assertion that it has the right to nuclear energy and agreed to discuss supplying reactors at an "appropriate time."
Mr. Hill said that time will come when North Korea gets rid of its nuclear weapons and returns to international nonproliferation treaties. He said he hopes that gives the North an incentive to stick to the agreement.
The document approved Monday is a statement of basic principles, and diplomats and analysts say next comes the task of negotiating specific details of how to reach those aims. The six countries have agreed to meet again in November.
David Zweig, a political scientist at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, says North Korea's past history of breaking agreements might pose another challenge. He says the agreement provides all signatories a way out with a clause that says terms will be carried out in phases, on a basis of "commitment for commitment, action for action."
"If the actions that the DPRK promises aren't there - and that means verifiable denuclearization - then the Americans are under no commitment to do it. So, if the North decides it just doesn't want to do it, it's not going to do it," added Mr. Zweig. "But this is an important step forward, and I think one that's nicely surprising for the world, given the fact that a couple of weeks ago, people thought that they'd never get to this point. "
Three earlier rounds of negotiations held since 2003 had failed to produce a statement of principles.
The accord came after the chief U.S. envoy raised pressure by announcing he was going home Monday with or without an agreement. Mr. Hill had earlier called on China - Pyongyang's closest ally - to convince the North to join the consensus.
There were further signs of waning U.S. patience last week when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told a New York newspaper the Bush administration was considering nonproliferation measures that include freezing North Korean assets overseas. In addition, U.S. officials have declared that it is investigating a bank in the southern Chinese territory of Macau for acting illegally on behalf of the North Korean government.