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North Korea agrees to nuclear disarmament

North Korea agreed today to take first steps toward nuclear disarmament and shut down its main reactor within 60 days before eventually dismantling its atomic weapons programme.

Under the deal, the North will receive initial aid equal to 50,000 tons of heavy fuel oil for shutting down and sealing its main nuclear reactor and related facilities at Yongbyon, north of the capital, to be confirmed by international inspectors. For irreversibly disabling the reactor and declaring all nuclear programmes, the North will eventually receive another 950,000 tons in aid.

The agreement was read to all delegates in a conference room at a Chinese state guesthouse and Chinese envoy Wu Dawei asked if there were any objections. When none were made, the officials all stood and applauded.

Under the agreement, North Korea and United States will also embark on talks aimed at resolving disputes and restarting diplomatic relations, Wu said. The Korean peninsula has remained in a state of war for more than a half-century since the Korean War ended in a 1953 cease-fire.

If Pyongyang goes through with its promises, they would be the first moves the communist nation has made to scale back its atomic development after more than three years of six-nation negotiations marked by delays, deadlock and the North's first nuclear test explosion in October.

Making sure that Pyongyang declares all its nuclear facilities and shuts them down is likely to prove arduous, nuclear experts have said.

North Korea has sidestepped previous agreements, allegedly running a uranium-based weapons program even as it froze a plutonium-based one — sparking the latest nuclear crisis in late 2002. The country is believed to have countless mountainside tunnels in which to hide projects.

Under the agreement reached today, the United States will also begin the process of removing North Korea from its designation as a terror-sponsoring state and also of ending US trade sanctions, but no deadlines were set, according to the agreement. Japan and North Korea also will seek to normalise relations.

The North will be required to list all its nuclear programmes — including plutonium it has already extracted from the Yongbyon reactor, the agreement says.

After the initial 60 days, a meeting will be held of foreign ministers from all countries at the talks — China, Japan, Russia, the United States and the two Koreas.

Under the agreement, five working groups are to meet within 30 days: denuclearisation; normalisation of US-North Korea relations; normalisation of North Korea-Japan relations; economy and energy cooperation; and peace and security in northeast Asia.

Another meeting of the nuclear envoys was scheduled for March 19 to check on the groups' progress.

In September 2005 during the six-nation talks, North Korea was promised energy aid and security guarantees in exchange for pledging to abandon its nuclear programmes. But talks on implementing that agreement repeatedly stalled on other issues.