BEIJING -- North Korea's promise yesterday to end its development of nuclear weapons and accept international inspections was a surprising breakthrough in talks in Beijing, but also left formidable obstacles for the United States and North Korea's other negotiating partners.
North Korea's pledge - the first the country has offered in writing to dismantle its nuclear weapons program - was part of a joint statement of principles issued by the diplomats of six nations, including the United States.
The statement remains only a blueprint for future talks and leaves many crucial points to be resolved. But for the Bush administration, it is welcome progress after three years of increasingly heated rhetoric from North Korea.
If the talks had failed, the Bush administration might have brought the Korean nuclear issue before the U.N. Security Council, a step that would have escalated the confrontation between the two historical foes.
Instead, China played the role of deal maker, intervening in recent days with a bold but carefully worded draft agreement and pushing both the United States and North Korea to sign. The Bush administration pledged an eventual normalization of relations with Pyongyang, and North Korea, which had often favored defiant rhetoric, has raised hopes that a comprehensive deal is possible.
"It's absolutely a breakthrough," said Ren Xiao, a senior fellow and Korea expert at the Shanghai Institute for International Studies. "The six countries have opened up a gate to the eventual denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula."
North Korea appears to have conceded the most ground, committing to the goal of totally abandoning nuclear weapons - and not repeating its demand for a nonaggression pact from the United States, though the statement said that the two countries agree to "exist peacefully together."
In return, North Korea can expect substantial rewards if a final deal is reached, including energy assistance from the other five nations - the United States, China, South Korea, Japan and Russia. That assistance could include South Korea's offer of electric power worth billions of dollars.
Delivery of that aid might be conditioned on North Korea rejoining the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and readmitting nuclear inspectors.
The agreement might help pressure Iran to make concessions on its nuclear program, an issue of increasing concern to the Bush administration and the United Nations.
The deal is an important success for Beijing, as the talks' host, in advance of President Bush's expected visit to China in November, the same month the talks are scheduled to resume.
In Washington, Bush called the agreement a positive step but also expressed skepticism about North Korea's intentions.
"They have said - in principle - that they will abandon their weapons programs," the president said. "And what we have said is, `Great. That's a wonderful step forward.' But now we've got to verify whether that happens."
"The question is, over time, will all parties adhere to the agreement," Bush said.
Formidable obstacles remain when the talks resume. The joint statement was a triumph in getting the six nations to agree on broad principles, but it also necessarily skirted issues that could ultimately prove deal-breakers.
"This is much better than nothing, but there are a lot of loopholes," said Kim Tae Woo, senior research fellow at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses. "The controversies will be over the specifics."
Obstacle No. 1, unmentioned in the joint statement, is likely to be Pyongyang's alleged second, secret nuclear program: a uranium-enrichment scheme that the United States says North Korea acknowledged in 2002 but that it has since denied possessing. Pyongyang could also easily choose not to acknowledge the existence of some of whatever nuclear weapons it has already made.
"Starting in November, they're going to talk about what are all these nuclear weapons and nuclear programs," said Zhang Liangui, a North Korea expert at the influential Central Party School in Beijing. "That's going to be the next major dispute."
Another important obstacle will be the timing of when North Korea makes concessions and when it receives rewards. Previous discussions on the specifics of this issue have always stalled, and the joint statement avoids the point altogether.
Pyongyang is still demanding aid in building a nuclear power plant, an idea that the Bush administration has bluntly rejected in the past. North Korea reasserted its right to such technology in yesterday's joint statement, but whether Pyongyang would actually obtain a nuclear plant is pointedly left to future discussion.
Wary of any promises