BEIJING --The United States and four other nations reached a tentative agreement today to provide North Korea with roughly $400 million in fuel oil, economic aid and humanitarian assistance, in return for the North to start to disable its nuclear facilities and allow nuclear inspectors back into the country, according to U.S. officials who have reviewed a proposed text.
While the accord sets a 60-day deadline for the North to accomplish those first steps toward disarmament, it leaves until an undefined future moment - and to another negotiation - the actual removal of North Korea's nuclear weapons and the fuel that it has manufactured to produce them. In essence, a country that four months ago conducted its first nuclear test has traded away its ability to produce new nuclear fuel in return for immediate energy and other aid. But it would hold on, for now, to an arsenal that U.S. intelligence officials believe contains a half dozen or more nuclear weapons or the fuel to produce them.
The accord also leaves unaddressed the fate of a second, still-undeclared nuclear weapons program that the United States accused North Korea of buying from the Pakistani nuclear engineer Abdul Qadeer Khan in the late 1990s, in what appeared to be an effort to circumvent a nuclear freeze it negotiated in 1994 with the Clinton administration.
Under the latest, tentative agreement, the fuel and aid to North Korea would be provided by South Korea, China and the United States - meaning that President Bush must get congressional approval.
In Washington, administration officials declined to call the first phase of the new agreement a "nuclear freeze." The term has echoes of the Clinton accord, which Bush had sharply criticized because it failed to force the North to ship its nuclear fuel out of the country before it received significant aid. They insisted that this agreement is different because the North will not receive light-water nuclear reactors, like those promised in the 1994 agreement, and because the accord will also be signed by the North's neighbors, including China. Beijing was the North's ally in the Korean War and its protector for decades, but relations have been strained and China apparently helped force the North into the new agreement.
Nonetheless, some administration officials acknowledged that they had concluded that a step-by-step accord was their only choice and that it would be impossible to set a schedule for the North's disarmament without taking initial steps to build trust.
"Everybody had to make some changes to try to narrow the differences," said Christopher R. Hill, the chief American negotiator. "One would hope that we can all agree on this tomorrow." Hill is expected to reconvene at 10:30 a.m. in Beijing with envoys from China, South Korea, Japan, Russia and North Korea to learn if each nation has approved the deal. But he said that he had been in frequent contact with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and that he believed the Bush administration would support the agreement.
"We feel it is an excellent draft," he said. "I don't think we are the problem."
Under the details of the deal, as described by U.S. and Asian officials, the $400 million in aid - roughly the worth of a million tons of heavy fuel oil - would be disbursed to the North as it meets its initial commitments, probably over the course of a year. The first of those must be completed in the next 60 days: The "permanent disablement" of the country's existing nuclear facilities at Yongbyon, its main nuclear complex north of the capital, Pyongyang. The International Atomic Energy Agency, whose inspectors were kicked out of North Korea four years ago, would be invited back in. And the North would have to prepare a "complete declaration" of all its nuclear facilities, turning that over to all of the parties in the talks and the IAEA.
That would pave the way for a second phase, in which "working groups" would negotiate the details of disarmament, including turning over weapons and fuel. Other groups would explore normalization of relations, a peace treaty formally ending the Korean War and additional economic aid in return for disarmament.
But the disarmament process promises to be enormously complex. North Korea is believed to have made one or two weapons, or the fuel for them, nearly two decades ago, and perhaps a half dozen or more since 2003. But U.S. officials are uncertain how many weapons the North possesses, and in the second phase of the accord, the North would have to explain what it did with the uranium-enrichment equipment that it apparently purchased from Khan, whose network also supplied Iran and Libya.
Some experts are doubtful that the North will ever agree to turn over its weapons, which it considers its main bargaining chip with the West, and President Kim Jong Il's only insurance policy against being toppled. "This is a freeze with a promise to negotiate subsequent disarmament," said Gary Samore, who was the top nonproliferation official in the Clinton White House. "And a North Korean promise to negotiate later is pretty worthless."
Hill acknowledged that he had a lot of negotiating ahead. "This is only one phase of denuclearization," he said. "We're not done."
Pending approval of the deal, Hill said, the new working groups could be quickly established while chief negotiators would likely reconvene in Beijing as soon as next month. He said the tentative agreement would create a succession of deadlines that would need to be met as a precondition of the deal.
North Korea had nearly scuttled the negotiations in recent days by insisting on a huge energy aid package, one the United States rejected. Reports suggested that North Korea had demanded 2 million tons of heavy fuel oil and 2 million kilowatts of electricity in exchange for its approval of any new accord, far less than it got.
At a glance
Negotiators from six nations reach a tentative agreement on initial steps toward North Korea's nuclear disarmament that could set the stage for the first concrete progress after more than three years of inconclusive talks.
The draft contains commitments on disarmament in exchange for energy assistance along with deadlines for initial actions, but few other details were provided.
The deal must be approved by the governments of North Korea, the United States and the other parties to the talks. A disarmament agreement reached in 2005 was never implemented.