An Agreement on Nukes

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U.S. negotiator Christopher Hill speaks to reporters after the conclusion of talks in Beijing

After two years of fruitless talks, the U.S. and North Korea have finally agreed on a statement of principles that outlines how North Korea might drop from the ranks of the world's nuclear-armed powers—but that leaves a great deal of difficult negotiating for the months ahead.

The statement, signed in Beijing by diplomats from the U.S., North Korea, China Russia, Japan and South Korea, represented the first breakthrough since North Korea withdrew from international agreements in 2002 and announced its intention to build nuclear weapons. Since then, Pyongyang has declared itself a nuclear power and is believed to possess as many as seven atom bombs.

The key passage confirmed Pyongyang's commitment to disassemble its nuclear weapons program—and the weapons themselves—in a "verifiable" way. It also expressed North Korea's willingness to return to the international agreements it pulled out of in 2002 when it acknowledged its nuclear program, specifically the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) and safeguards outlined by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). In exchange, The United States offered energy aid and the possibility of diplomatic relations, confirmed that it does not intend to invade North Korea, and agreed to a step-by-step approach to disarmament. Previously, the U.S. had insisted that Pyongyang surrender it's nukes completely before the country received any aid.

The U.S. also dropped its demand that North Korea abandon its hopes for peaceful nuclear power. The statement affirmed North Korea's "right to peaceful uses of nuclear energy," and said the six parties in the talks would consider assisting North Korea in building a light-water reactor "at an appropriate time." (Light-water reactors produce fewer materials that can be used in nuclear weapons than other types.) Chief U.S. negotiator Christopher Hill told reporters at a briefing that the U.S. would consider the light-water reactor issue "when North gets rid of its nuclear weapons and all of its existing programs and gets back into the NPT with good standing with IAEA safeguards."

One potential sticking point in all this is verification. Analysts have long suggested that North Korea wants a nuclear arsenal as a deterrent to attacks, rather than as part of an offensive strategy to invade South Korea. To maintain its deterrent capability, the North would need only a few weapons and a rudimentary delivery system, and hiding such a small cache in the country's underdeveloped hinterland would not be difficult. "Verification is definitely a problem," says Jin Canrong, a specialist in international affairs at People's University in Beijing. "But to reach a new agreement they need progress, and today's statement is progress."

If implemented, the blueprint released Monday will yield an agreement nearly identical to the "Agreed Framework" negotiated by the Clinton Administration in 1994, which President Bush all but rejected in 2001. In that agreement, the U.S. also promised aid, a light-water reactor and the possibility of normal relations in exchange for a guarantee from North Korea that it would mothball its nuclear weapons program. After a strategic review of that framework, however, the U.S. accused North Korea of carrying on a secret program to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons; North Korea then accused the U.S. of failing to live up to its end of the agreement, withdrew from international protocols and began to reprocess nuclear material in earnest. It's that material, from plutonium rods previously been under international supervision, which North Korea is believed to have used to construct its still-untested nuclear arsenal.