North Korea promised to give up its nuclear weapons program yesterday, defusing a high-stakes crisis, but sceptics said the deal hammered out in Beijing was long on words and short of action.
South Korea, the US, Japan, Russia and China -- the other players in the six-party talks -- in exchange expressed a willingness to provide oil, energy aid and security guarantees.
Washington and Tokyo agreed to normalize ties with the impoverished and diplomatically isolated North, which pledged to rejoin the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
"The joint statement is the most important achievement in the two years since the start of six-party talks," Chinese chief negotiator Wu Dawei (
South Korea's unification minister, Chung Dong-young, went further, saying the agreement would serve as a first step towards dismantling the Cold War confrontation between the two Koreas.
Chief US negotiator Christopher Hill said the proof would be in implementation.
"Whether this agreement helps solve this will depend in large measure on what we do in the days and weeks that follow," he told reporters. "We need to take the momentum of this agreement and work to see that it is implemented.
"We have to see this decision [by North Korea to abandon nuclear weapons] followed up on. We have to see implementation."
Japan's chief delegate, Kenichiro Sasae, agreed, saying: "We must secure specific agreements regarding the implementation of the agreed principles, particularly the specific sequence towards realisation of the abandonment of nuclear programs by North Korea and verification measures."
The head of the UN nuclear watchdog said he welcomed the deal and hoped it would lead to an early return of UN inspectors to North Korea.
Lee Dong-bok, Seoul-based senior associate of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said the statement had failed to bring about any real progress.
"It contains no more than agreements on some principles that help prevent the talks from collapsing and take them to the next round," he said.
Under the agreement, North Korea would have the right to a civilian nuclear program -- the main sticking point between Pyongyang and Washington -- if it regains international trust.
The US, backed by Japan, had argued that North Korea could not be trusted with atomic energy, but China, South Korea and Russia said that if Pyongyang scrapped its nuclear weapons and agreed to strict safeguards it could have such an energy program in future.
Failure to reach an agreement in Beijing could have prompted Washington to go to the UN Security Council and seek sanctions.
The North had said sanctions would be tantamount to war.
North Korea had demanded aid and security guarantees before it dismantled any of its nuclear programs, but Washington and Tokyo had wanted it to verifiably dismantle first.
The six parties agreed to hold a fifth round of talks in Beijing in November, but analysts had reservations about whether points of contention had been resolved.
Bob Broadfoot, managing director of Political and Economic Risk Consultancy in Hong Kong, said: "I suspect anything they've signed is built around a philosophy of `show me first.'"
"The devil will be in the detail of who's allowed to go in when to inspect the status of North Korea's program. And you can bet there'll be some controversy around that," he said.