WASHINGTON — North Korea will halt long-range missile launches and nuclear weapons tests and suspend the enrichment of uranium at its key nuclear site in exchange for badly needed food aid from the United States, the two countries announced Wednesday.
The surprise deal, reached in talks last week in Beijing, appeared to raise the prospects of resuming long-stalled negotiations on shuttering North Korea's nuclear weapons program, although there was considerable skepticism that Pyongyang, which has hailed the nuclear effort as its greatest achievement, will fulfill its end of the bargain.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the accord a "modest first step." White House spokesman Jay Carney said that further progress would "depend on actions the North Koreans take to demonstrate that they are upholding the commitments they've made."
If implemented, the deal would represent a major policy shift by North Korea after the death of dictator Kim Jong Il from a heart attack in December and the accession of his son, Kim Jong Un. North Korea has refused to suspend its nuclear program since six-nation talks over the issue collapsed nearly four years ago.
The talks in Beijing, which took place during a 100-day mourning period for Kim Jong Il, were held with the same North Korean officials who've been involved in the nuclear negotiations for years, said a senior Obama administration official who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity as a matter of policy.
"It shows that they are interested with some alacrity to reach out, to get back to the table, and begin to try to make diplomatic progress, and I think that's a positive sign," he said.
Under the deal, U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors will return to the Yongbyon nuclear complex to monitor compliance with the enrichment suspension, as well as the disabling of a 5-MW reactor and related facilities, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.
Enrichment is the process that produces — depending on the duration — low-enriched uranium fuel for power reactors and highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons.
Pyongyang will have to contact the IAEA to make arrangements for the deployment of the monitors, the senior Obama administration official said, adding that the speed with which it does this will be viewed as an indication of its commitment to the deal.
The agreement gives President Barack Obama a boost just weeks before he joins some 50 other heads of state in South Korea to review progress on his initiative to lock up the world's nuclear weapons materials by the end of 2014, keeping them safe from theft. It also comes as his administration grapples with the growing crisis over Iran's refusal to halt its uranium enrichment program, which the U.S. and other countries contend is part of a secret effort to develop nuclear weapons — a charge Tehran denies.
The accord with Pyongyang, however, carries potential political risks for Obama as he steps up his re-election campaign. The North Koreans have a history of reneging on agreements involving their nuclear program, something Republicans lost no time in recalling, and that GOP presidential candidates could use to bash the president.
"Today's North Korea announcement ... sounds a lot like the failed agreements of the past," Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., the chairwoman of the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, told Clinton at a hearing on the State Department budget. "We've bought this bridge several times before."
The North Korean announcement, carried by the Stalinist regime's official news agency, appeared to give Pyongyang some room to pull back, saying it would observe the moratoriums "while productive dialogues continue."
The State Department noted that "the United States still has profound concerns regarding North Korean behavior across a wide range of areas." But it added that the agreement "reflects important, if limited, progress in addressing some" U.S. concerns.
That opened the way for finalizing the details of delivering about 264,000 tons of badly needed U.S. food aid to North Korea. The two sides also will discuss monitoring delivery of the aid, which Washington apparently is demanding to ensure that it reaches civilians and isn't diverted to the North Korean military.
A second senior administration official, who also briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity, said the food aid would be delivered in batches of about 20,000 tons per month for 12 months, with an emphasis on the country's most vulnerable citizens: children, pregnant women and the elderly.
He said the deliveries wouldn't begin until the monitoring program was in place.
This will be "the most comprehensively monitored and managed program since the U.S. began assistance to (North Korea) in the mid-1990s," he said.
According to a U.N. World Food Program report in November, the impoverished Stalinist nation of 25 million people is suffering a shortage estimated at more than 451,900 tons of food.
Malnutrition and health problems are rampant, according to the report, creating a potential source of instability for the young Kim — who's thought to be in his mid-20s — as he and a tight circle of veteran aides strive to consolidate his power after his father's death.
While the Obama administration says it doesn't link food aid to the effort to restart the six-party talks — which involve the U.S., China, Russia, Japan, South Korea and North Korea — some experts said that was precisely what it had done in the new deal.
"They can walk away from a moratorium anytime they want after they get the food," said Mitchell Reiss, a retired U.S. ambassador who participated in nuclear negotiations with the North Koreans. He's a foreign policy adviser to GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, but he said he was speaking in his personal capacity.
The six-party talks began in August 2003, and after four rounds they succeeded in forging a 2005 agreement requiring Pyongyang to end its nuclear program in exchange for massive financial and energy assistance, and establishing diplomatic links to the outside world.
In October 2006, North Korea conducted an underground nuclear test, triggering U.N. sanctions. It declared an end to the six-party talks in July 2009, three months after a second underground nuclear test and a series of ballistic missile tests in violation of a U.N. resolution.
The State Department announcement said that as part of the new deal, the U.S. "reaffirms that it does not have hostile intent" toward North Korea.
Some experts noted that there was no reference to hostile North Korean actions against South Korea, including a March 2010 torpedoing of a South Korean naval ship that killed 46 sailors and an artillery barrage of a South Korean island eight months later that killed four South Koreans.
In another potential flaw to the agreement, there's considerable suspicion that North Korea is hiding its main uranium-enrichment facility.
"The enrichment we're concerned about doesn't take place at Yongbyon," Reiss said, declining to elaborate.(Lesley Clark contributed to this article.)MORE FROM MCCLATCHYUS, North Korea holds first talks since Kim Jong Il's deathCommentary: We can't ignore North Korean sufferingNorth Korea, in transition, could draw further into shellNorth Korea's Kim Jong Il dies at 69Follow Jonathan S. Landay on Twitter