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Peace gains a foothold on Korean peninsula

With a report from Reuters

WASHINGTON

h Korea agreed yesterday to destroy its nuclear arsenal, signalling what might be a huge diplomatic triumph for Beijing and a new era of stability on the Korean peninsula after nearly a half-century of hot and cold war.

U.S. President George W. Bush -- who once lumped Pyongyang's neo-Stalinist regime among three terrorist-sponsoring rogue states seeking weapons of mass destruction -- welcomed the deal.

"They have said, in principle, that they will abandon their weapons programs," Mr. Bush said. "And what we have said is, 'Great. That's a wonderful step forward.' But now we've got to verify whether that happens."

North Korea's history of clandestine nuclear-arms programs is matched only by its repeated duplicity in making and breaking pledges to forswear such weapons.

Yesterday's sweeping agreement includes a pledge by Washington not to attack North Korea -- a fear that looms large in the impoverished state run by "Dear Leader" Kim Jong-il -- and a far-reaching set of other promises.

The enticements range from oil and food to security guarantees and pledges by Japan and the United States to establish diplomatic relations with one of the world's most reclusive regimes. No schedule was set for normalizing relations. Talks are set to resume in early November to work out details to implement the agreement.

"The United States affirmed that it has no nuclear weapons on the Korean peninsula and has no intention to attack or invade [North Korea] with nuclear or conventional weapons," the jointly agreed statement said, although that section amounted to little more than a restatement of long-standing U.S. policy.

There were few details about how a broad series of agreed principles would become a concrete set of verifiable steps. Demands for action to bolster words began almost immediately.

Top U.S. officials called on North Korea to shut down the Yongbyon reactor it used to extract weapons-grade material. "The time to turn it off would be about now," said U.S. assistant secretary of state Christopher Hill, head of the delegation to the six-party talks.

Beijing, which played host to the talks that often teetered on collapse, apparently pushed hard for the deal. However, it remains unclear whether China, which props up North Korea with crucial energy and food shipments, threatened to cut them off.

"The joint statement is the most important achievement in the two years since the start of six-party talks," said China's chief negotiator, Wu Dawei. Nearby, a wagon-wheel-sized moon cake, decorated with a phoenix, was brought in to celebrate the deal.

Until the difficult details are worked out, the deal's biggest triumph may "be that the real danger of breakdown has been averted," said Derek Mitchell, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "Nothing suggests that the mistrust between the two [North Korea and the United States] has been bridged."

North Korea said today it would not give up its nuclear weapons until it is given civilian nuclear reactors.

The statement, from an unnamed North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman, said the United States must prove its recognition of Pyongyang's right to a civilian nuclear program by providing light-water reactors as soon as possible.

The move creates pressure on the other five parties to the talks as far as the sequence of events outlined in yesterday's agreement.

Mr. Bush indicated as much and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was blunt in her view of which side needs to deliver.

"When the North Koreans have dismantled their nuclear weapons and other nuclear programs verifiably and are, indeed, nuclear-free, when they are back in the NPT [Non-Proliferation Treaty], when they have gotten into IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] safeguards, I suppose we can discuss anything," she said.

That left open -- just -- the possibility of North Korea having a civilian nuclear power generating capacity. But yesterday's statement pushed any such possibility into the future. "The other parties expressed their respect and agreed to discuss at an appropriate time the subject of the provision of a light-water reactor" to North Korea, it said.

North Korea threw IAEA inspectors out of the country after admitting in late 2002 that it had broken a 1994 agreement to halt nuclear weapons programs.

Yesterday, Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said: "The earlier we go back, the better." But IAEA inspectors had failed to uncover Pyongyang's clandestine program for the better part of a decade.

Still, even the first tentative steps of a diplomatic breakthrough with North Korea underscore the widely divergent approaches, and results, obtained by the Bush administration on the so-called axis-of-evil triumvirate -- Iran, Iraq and North Korea.

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