President Bush has welcomed Tuesday's agreement at the six-party talks in Beijing as a "first step" toward a nuclear weapons-free Korean peninsula. Administration officials, meanwhile are defending the agreement against criticism that it rewards bad behavior by North Korea.
The Beijing agreement would appear to be a major victory for a Bush administration foreign policy team battered by problems in Iraq and elsewhere.
But officials from the President on down are taking a cautious approach to the deal, saying it represents only a first step toward ending a North Korean nuclear program that produced a weapons test four months ago.
In a written statement, President Bush congratulated Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and chief U.S. negotiator Christopher Hill, and called the six party talks the "best opportunity" to address the problem of North Korea's nuclear program through diplomacy.
The deal commits North Korea to shut down its main nuclear reactor at Yongbyon within 60 days in return for initial aid equal to 50,000 tons of heavy fuel oil.
For disabling the reactor and disclosing all nuclear activities, Pyongyang would get almost one million tons of additional oil or in-kind aid, while also securing an end to international sanctions.
Secretary Rice met reporters to hail the agreement and to stress that United States' partners in the talks - Russia, Japan, South Korea and host China - all have a stake in seeing that Pyongyang fulfills its commitments:
"This breakthrough step was the result of patient, creative and tough diplomacy. This is a multilateral agreement. All of the major players in the region now share a stake in its outcome, as well as a demand for results and accountability. All six parties are the guarantors of this agreement, and there is great interest in the rest of the region to see that it is fully implemented."
Provision of fuel oil and other elements of the deal will require U.S. congressional approval, and there is already criticism that it rewards North Korea for producing nuclear weapons.
Former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, who is now a conservative commentator, told a House hearing the deal tells would-be proliferator countries that if they hold out long enough and wear down State Department negotiators, they will be rewarded:
"It allows the North Koreans to gain substantial economic benefit with a minimal commitment on their part, not even dealing with the full threat of their nuclear weapons program. And I think the second aspect is that it sends a terrible signal to other would-be proliferators, and is an indication of weakness on the administration's part precisely when we need to be looking, I should stop saying we, when the administration needs to look strong on Iran and in Iraq."
Rice defended the agreement as a major advance over the nuclear freeze accord the Clinton administration negotiated with Pyongyang in 1994, but which later collapsed amid U.S. charges of North Korean cheating.
She said not only are North Korea's neighbors part of the agreement this time, but that it quickly goes beyond a freeze to commit Pyongyang to verifiably and irreversibly end its nuclear program:
"In the next 60 days, we expect North Korea to shut down and seal the Yongbyon nuclear facility for the purpose of abandonment. The IAEA will return to the country to conduct all necessary monitoring and verification. The DPRK will also discuss a list of all programs including the plutonium extracted from fuel rods. These programs
will also be abandoned."
The deal holds out the prospect of an end to all U.S. sanctions against North Korea, including its listing as a state sponsor of terrorism, and eventual normalization of relations.
Rice said if there is sufficient progress in implementing the accord, the six parties will convene after 60 days for a ministerial level review, which would provide for her first meeting ever with her North Korean counterpart.