US and N Korea agree nuclear weapons deal

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AFTER three weeks of intense negotiations, the United States and North Korea last night announced a draft agreement designed to curb Pyongyang's ability to manufacture nuclear weapons. The deal should pave the way to diplomatic ties between the two countries.

'I think this is a very good agreement,' Robert Gallucci, chief US negotiator, said in Geneva. However, he declined to give details. The outline deal will be sent back for approval by the respective governments.

Assuming no last-minute hitches, the accord will be signed formally in Geneva on Friday.

Reports have been circulating here for days that Washington and Pyongyang were on the verge of settling a dispute that only a few months ago raised tensions on the Korean peninsula to a level unmatched since the 1950-1953 war, with the Clinton administration warning it would not accept the North acquiring a military muclear capability.

But the administration modified its demands, saying it would be content with a freeze of the programme at its existing level. It also made clear its readiness to set up diplomatic ties. Last week, senior State Department officials said a 'significant breakthrough' was at hand.

Under the plan, the US is expected to help to reshape North Korea's civil nuclear programme, replacing gas- graphite reactors with the pressurized water system that generates less plutonium - the key material for nuclear weapons. In turn, a nuclear deal is likely to unlock other US and Western aid for the crumbling North Korean economy.

Full details were not immediately available but agreement could not have been reached without the consent of South Korea. It is likely to open the path for a resumption of dialogue between the two Koreas, interrupted by the death last summer of the North's Kim Il Sung.