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Experts: Challenges Lie Ahead for North Korea Nuclear Deal

For the most part, international experts are praising the agreement reached in Beijing this week as a good first step toward ending North Korea's nuclear-weapons programs. It is the next, very daunting steps in the process that cause them concern. VOA's Kurt Achin in Beijing reports on the obstacles that lie ahead.

International Crisis Group (ICG) North Asia Director Peter Beck says this week's agreement forces North Korea to put its cards on the table.

"You know, within two months we are going to have a pretty good idea about how serious the North is about moving forward on denuclearization," he said.

Critics, such as Washington's former ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, warn that trusting Pyongyang to stick to its promises is a "fantasy."

North Korea's Central News Agency provided fuel for such skepticism when it described the aim of the exercise as a "temporary suspension" of its nuclear facilities, rather than complete and permanent abandonment of its nuclear weapons programs.

But President Bush is praising the agreement as a "good first step" toward a nuclear-free North Korea.

Shi Yinhong, an international relations scholar at Renmin University here in Beijing, praises the deal's attention to specifics.

"The agreement is very concrete, and with a very clear framework and deadline," he noted.

The deal is split into two phases. During an initial 60-day phase, North Korea agrees to shut down and seal its main nuclear facility at Yongbyon under international supervision, in exchange for 50,000 tons of heavy fuel oil to ease its chronic energy shortage.

Experts say the second phase is far more complex. It offers more oil, but also requires North Korea, one of the world's most secretive nations, to make a full declaration of all the nuclear materiel and weapons it possesses.

Yoon Duk-min, a scholar at the South Korean government-backed Institute for National Affairs and Security, says that is where the real work will lie.

He says it is important to remember North Korea has between six and nine nuclear weapons. He predicts "long and strenuous" negotiations to learn the details of those weapons.

As part of this step, U.S. officials say North Korea must explain in detail how much weapons-grade plutonium it has produced.

Pyongyang will also have to address U.S. assertions that it has a second, secret weapons program based on enriched uranium. The North has never admitted to such a program, and experts say failure to do so may cause the agreement to unravel.

Diplomatic processes built into the agreement could also hinder progress. North Korea is due to hold talks with both the United States and Japan aimed at normalizing diplomatic relations.

Japan has refused to participate in donations of energy to the North until Pyongyang addresses the issue of abductions of Japanese citizens by North Korean agents in the 1970's and '80's. Some experts have described the issue as a "national obsession" in Japan, and Tokyo's reluctance could also hold up progress on nuclear issues.

A former U.S. State Department interpreter who dealt closely with North Korea, Tong Kim, says the only way the plan will succeed is for Washington to win the confidence of Pyongyang's reclusive leader, Kim Jong Il.

"I mean, we [the US] have to somehow assure Kim Jong Il that it would really be in his interest to get rid of [his] weapons," he explained.

Despite the obstacles, Yoo Ho-yeol, a North Korea expert at Seoul's Korea University, says Pyongyang has an incentive to stick to the process, because of the difficulties it has already faced.

Yoo says U.S. financial sanctions against North Korea, and the hardship they caused, were the main reason Pyongyang made a deal in the first place. He says Pyongyang probably perceives a lessening in what it has repeatedly described as a "hostile attitude" on the part of the United States.

Chinese Professor Shi speaks for the skeptics when he doubts Kim Jong Il has any intention of following nuclear disarmament through to a conclusion.

"I cannot believe that North Korea has already determined to finally surrender their nuclear-arms program," he said. "I think they always want [to have] their cake, and eat it [too]."

The next chance to gauge the North's aims will come next month, when the five partner nations - China, Russia, South Korea, Japan, and the United States - hold a scheduled follow-up meeting with North Korea here in Beijing.