SEOUL, South Korea -- The United States and North Korea have reached an agreement on providing up-to-date nuclear reactors to North Korea, clearing a major hurdle toward the dismantling of that country's suspected atomic weapons program, officials said today.
"Our capitals have accepted the joint statement and authorized its release," Thomas C. Hubbard, the State Department official leading the negotiations, said from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where the talks have been taking place.
The agreement, concluded after more than three weeks of negotiations, will assure that a South Korean reactor will be the type chosen for North Korea and that a South Korean company will play a central role in the construction of the project, which will cost roughly $4 billion.
Resolving the issue of the type of reactor removes a major stumbling block from carrying out the agreement signed by the United States and North Korea last October in Geneva, Switzerland. That agreement is aimed at halting North Korea's suspected nuclear weapons development.
"We moved the project down the road a substantial degree," said Mr. Hubbard, a deputy assistant secretary of state. "The critical issues that have been outstanding have been the reactor model and the commercial arrangement." The accord reached today "effectively determines those issues," he said.
But negotiators left for future talks another contentious issue -- North Korea's demands for up to $1 billion worth of electrical power lines and other installations ancillary to the reactors. That means there could be further delays later.
Other major issues related to the Geneva agreement also have not been resolved. They include the disposal of spent fuel rods from North Korea's existing reactor, and the resumption of discussions between North and South Korea. No American or South Korean official expects the implementation of the Geneva accord to proceed without further hitches.
In Geneva, North Korea had agreed to freeze and eventually dismantle its existing nuclear program, which the United States suspects is directed at developing bombs. In exchange, the North will receive up-to-date light-water reactors that produce less of the type of plutonium needed for weapons than the graphite-moderated reactors North Korea has been developing. The United States also agreed to improve relations with the isolated Communist government and to provide it with fuel oil.
Today's announcement is a joint statement on how to proceed with the implementation of the accord reached in Geneva. It is not a formal treaty like the one signed there.
Still, U.S. officials said, the statement represented a commitment by both sides and should preserve for now the tenuous nuclear freeze on the Korean Peninsula that was put into place by the Geneva agreement.
The statement forged in Kuala Lumpur confirms that North Korea will continue to maintain the freeze on its nuclear program, American officials said. The key to today's agreement, Mr. Hubbard said, is that North Korea will accept the reactor and that the prime contractor will be chosen by the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization, a multinational consortium led by the United States, South Korea and Japan.
The consortium is committed to choosing South Korean technology and to giving a central role in construction to a South Korean company.