BEIJING - North Korea agreed Tuesday after arduous talks to shut down its main nuclear reactor and eventually dismantle its atomic weapons program, just four months after the communist state shocked the world by testing a nuclear bomb.
The deal marks the first concrete plan for disarmament in more than three years of six-nation negotiations. The plan also could potentially herald a new era of cooperation in the region with the North's longtime foes - the United States and Japan - also agreeing to discuss normalizing relations.
"Obviously we have a long way to go, but we're very pleased with this agreement," U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill told reporters. "It's a very solid step forward."
Making sure North Korea declares all its nuclear facilities and shuts them down is likely to prove difficult, nuclear experts have said.
The country 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. There are believed to be countless mountainside tunnels in which to hide projects.
"We don't have an agreement at this point even on the existence of this program but I certainly have made very clear repeatedly that we need to ensure that we know precisely the status of that," Hill said.
Under the deal, the North would 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, within 60 days, to be confirmed by international inspectors. For irreversibly disabling the reactor and declaring all nuclear programs, the North will eventually receive another 950,000 tons in aid. The total is worth $250 million.
One million tons of oil would be equivalent to more than two-thirds of North Korea's entire oil consumption in 2004, according figures in the CIA Factbook.
The agreement, which also requires that North Korea state all its nuclear programs including plutonium already extracted, was read to all delegates in a conference room at a Chinese state guesthouse. Chinese envoy Wu Dawei asked if there were objections. With none made, the officials all stood and applauded.
"I consider the agreement as a new milestone in denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula," said South Korean Assistant Foreign Minister Chun Yung-woo.
But already before its adoption, the deal drew strong criticism from John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the U.N., who urged President Bush to reject it.
"I am very disturbed by this deal," Bolton told CNN. "It sends exactly the wrong signal to would-be proliferators around the world: 'If we hold out long enough, wear down the State Department negotiators, eventually you get rewarded,' in this case with massive shipments of heavy fuel oil for doing only partially what needs to be done."
If North Korea goes through with its promises, they would be the first moves the communist nation has made to scale back its atomic development since the talks began in 2003 after the North kicked out international inspectors and restarted its sole operating nuclear reactor.
Hill said he believed the agreement was a strong one.
"The fact that there are six parties, i think, is very important. It's one thing to walk away from one party. It's another thing to walk away from all of its neighbors," he told CNN. "We cannot keep North Korea from heading in the direction of nuclear weapons on our own."
Hill said the North Koreans had insisted that the specific amount of aid was spelled out during the talks - and not left to a later working group to address as the U.S. had wanted.
In return, Hill said the negotiators moved to also discuss the next step in disarmament, the actual disabling of the North's programs so they could not easily be restarted.
"We took what was essentially a sticking point and used it as a way to make further progress on the road to denuclearization," he said.
Under the agreement, North Korea and United States will 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.
The United States will also begin the process of removing North Korea from its designation as a terror-sponsoring state and also on ending U.S. trade sanctions, but no deadlines have been was set, according to the agreement.
Washington's blacklisting of a Macau bank in September 2005 had led the North to a more-than-yearlong boycott of the six-nation talks during which it tested its first nuclear bomb. Hill said the U.S. would address that matter within 30 days.
Japan and North Korea also will seek to normalize relations, under the agreement.
But Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said in Tokyo that his country would not contribute aid to the North until the issue of the abductions of its citizens by North Korea is resolved. North Korea has admitted to abducting Japanese citizens, but not to Japan's satisfaction.
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: denuclearization; normalization of U.S.-North Korea relations; normalization of North Korea-Japan relations; economy and energy cooperation; and peace and security in northeast Asia.
A meeting of the nuclear envoys is set 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 programs. But talks on implementing that agreement repeatedly stalled on other issues.