NORTH KOREAsignalled yesterday that it may be ready to emerge from decades of secretive isolation by reaching an agreement with the United States to suspend its nuclear ambitions and take the first steps towards normalising relations.
The accord, concluded in the early hours after a week of negotiations in Geneva, includes promises from Pyongyang that it would be prepared to allow international inspection of its nuclear installations and that it would 'seal' a laboratory used to process spent fuel rods into plutonium.
In exchange for these and some other concessions, the US would help the country replace its ageing graphite nuclear reactors with light-water reactors, considered safer by Washington. Moreover, each country would open diplomatic representations in the other's capital and promote trade.
The US side emphasised that several important issues remained unresolved and stated that further talks to solidify and finalise the agreement will begin in just over a month, on 23 September. 'The lion's share remains ahead of us,' said Robert Galluci, the chief American negotiator.
Pyongyang is still resisting US demands that 8,000 spent fuel rods now in a cooling pond in North Korea be transported to a third country. However, the North Korean Deputy Foreign Minister, Kang Sock Ju, said later that the rods would remain in the pond untouched. 'The Democratic People's Republic of Korea will not reprocess the spent fuel,' he said.
Another possible snag is the continuing refusal of the North Koreans to allow inspectors access to two sites where nuclear waste is believed to be stored. Inspection might finally reveal whether the country has already built nuclear bombs.
Even so, the success in reaching the agreement offers President Bill Clintona welcome foreign affairs reprieve. Tension with North Korea had been escalating for 18 months to the point where conflict in the Korean peninsula appeared a real possibility. Two months ago, Washington was threatening to impose sanctions against Pyongyang because of its refusal to allow inspectors into its nuclear installations.
The signing of the accord also suggests that the more conciliatory stance apparently taken by the former North Korean president, Kim Il Sung, just before his death a month ago, when the US-Korean talks were temporarily suspended, is being pursued by the new regime under his son and putative heir, Kim Jong Il.
In a joint statement, the two sides hailed the progress but hinted also at a long road ahead, saying the accord 'should be part of a final resolution of the nuclear issue'.
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