North Korea agrees to nuclear freeze in return for foreign aid

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The Independent Online

North Korea and the United States have taken a step back from nuclear confrontation after the reclusive Communist state agreed to freeze its nuclear weapons programme in return for foreign fuel aid.

The deal, reached at six-party talks in Beijing, was hailed by the US President George Bush as "the best opportunity to use diplomacy to address North Korea's nuclear programme". His spokesman described it as a "very important first step" towards the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula.

But amid bitter memories of similar agreements that later fell apart, there were suspicions that North Korea had successfully blackmailed the world without totally renouncing its nuclear weapons programme. Announcing the agreement yesterday, the official Korean Central News Agency said Pyongyang had only agreed to a "temporary suspension" of its nuclear facilities.

Under the pact, reached after week-long negotiations involving the US, North and South Korea, Japan, China and Russia, Pyongyang agreed to mothball its Yongbyon reactor complex in return for $300m (£154m) worth of aid. South Korea, China, the US and Russia - but not Japan - will provide 100,000 tonnes of fuel oil or an equivalent value of economic or humanitarian aid.

Japan, which has taken a tough line towards North Korea since the election of the Prime Minister Shinzo Abe last year, said it would not provide heavy fuel oil until the issue of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea since the 1970s was resolved.

One Bush administration hawk, the former UN ambassador John Bolton, criticised the decision to "reward" North Korea. "It sends exactly the wrong signal to would-be proliferators around the world," he told CNN yesterday.

Mr Bush has in the past singled out North Korea - along with Iraq and Iran - as part of an "axis of evil." But Mr Bush's spokesman, Tony Snow, yesterday denied North Korea was being rewarded and said the current deal, which could face hurdles before it is ratified, is stronger than earlier agreements as it committed six parties to the terms.

North Korea has been under UN sanctions since it conducted its first known nuclear test on 9 October last year. But the key issue for Pyongyang had been the blacklisting of a Macau bank by the US treasury for alleged counterfeiting and money-laundering by North Korea. In the Beijing agreement, the US agreed to deal with that issue within 30 days. If all goes according to a timetable in the agreement, the pact provides for talks on normalising relations with the US and Japan, delisting North Korea as a sponsor of state terror and ending US trade sanctions.

The head of the UN nuclear watchdog, Mohamed ElBaradei, has said North Korea could have enough plutonium from the Yongbyon plant to make "five or six" nuclear bombs. The International Atomic Energy Agency, which was expelled from North Korea in December 2002, will now be allowed back.

But the deal does not specifically provide for investigating whether North Korea has a uranium enrichment programme.

Mr Snow warned that if North Korea did not live up to its commitments in the deal, it faces the continuing threat of international sanctions. The chief American negotiator, Christopher Hill, warned that "any action to restart the [Yongbyon] reactors would be a violation of the agreement."