BEIJING (Reuters) - North Korea agreed to take steps towards nuclear disarmament under a groundbreaking deal struck on Tuesday that will bring the impoverished communist state more than $300 million (154 million pounds) worth of aid.
Under the agreement, which was reached by six countries in Beijing after nearly a week of talks, Pyongyang will freeze the reactor at the heart of its nuclear programme and allow international inspections of the site.
"This progress marks another firm and important step towards the denuclearisation of the peninsula," China's chief delegate, Wu Dawei, told the closing session of the talks, which was carried live on television from the heavily guarded Diaoyutai state guesthouse.
"It is favourable for the peace process in northeast Asia and for the improvement of ties between relevant countries," he said, after which delegates rose hesitatingly to their feet in restrained applause.
The proposed plan hammered out by the two Koreas, the United States, Japan, Russia, and China will only be the first step in locating and dismantling North Korea's nuclear arms activities, leaving many crucial questions to future negotiations.
"This is only one phase of denuclearisation. We're not done," chief U.S. negotiator Christopher Hill said.
As details of the draft leaked out earlier, Japan was already voicing doubt that any agreement could be made to stick, and a prominent U.S. conservative decried it as a "very bad deal".
John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said the Communist state should not be rewarded with "massive shipments of heavy fuel oil" for only partially dismantling its nuclear programme.
"It sends exactly the wrong signal to would-be proliferators around the world," he told CNN.
OIL, POWER MAY FOLLOW
Under the agreement, North Korea must take the steps within 60 days, and in return it will receive 50,000 tonnes of fuel oil or economic aid of equal value.
It will receive another 950,000 tonnes of fuel oil or equivalent when it takes further steps to disable its nuclear capabilities, including providing a complete inventory of its plutonium -- the fuel used in Pyongyang's first nuclear test blast in October.
The 1 million tonnes of fuel would be worth around $300 million at current prices for heavy fuel oil, which is used in power stations, shipping and elsewhere.
The steps for now do not involve the provision of 2,000 megawatts of electricity that South Korea pledged in a September 2005 deal reached by the six countries. That is reserved for after the completion of denuclearisation of North Korea.
The electricity, at an estimated cost of $8.55 billion over 10 years, would be about equal to North Korea's current output.
The Beijing talks had focussed on how to begin implementing a September 2005 accord that offered Pyongyang aid and security assurances in return for dismantling its weapons capabilities.
The United States would contribute to the infusion of oil and aid for North Korea, meaning that President George W. Bush must win Congressional approval for the deal, the New York Times reported.
North Korea stepped down the path to nuclear disarmament before, in a 1994 agreement with the Clinton administration that also promised aid.
But that Joint Framework agreement fell apart amid accusations of bad faith between Pyongyang and Washington, and the agreement collapsed in late 2002 after Washington accused North Korea of seeking to produce weapons-grade uranium.
A gulf of distrust divides the isolated North from others in the talks, especially the United States. Diplomats have stressed that even this new initial disarmament action could founder.
"This is a first step," Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Aso told U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in a telephone call, Kyodo reported. "Whether it actually goes ahead remains to be seen. We do not know whether it will go ahead just because it has been signed."
(Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard, Nick Macfie, Lindsay Beck, Ian Ransom and Teruaki Ueno in Beijing)