Prague, 19 September 2005 (RFE/RL) -- It is rare that the delegates at the usually contentious six-party talks over the North Korean nuclear crisis stand up and applaud each other.
But that is what happened as the fourth round of the on-again, off-again talks in Beijing ended today.
The reason is that the six parties -- the two Koreas, the United States, China, Russia, and Japan - were finally able to issue a landmark joint statement after two years of wrangling.
Chinese chief negotiator Wu Dawei described the key point in the statement to reporters this way: "The DPRK (Democratic People's Republic of Korea) committed to abandoning all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs and returning at an early date to the treaty on the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons and to IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) safeguards."
North Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in 2003 and declared itself a nuclear-weapons power. North Korea is widely believed to have at least two nuclear weapons.
In exchange for North Korea saying it will give up its nuclear programs and weapons, the other five parties in the talks have expressed willingness to provide oil and energy aid and security guarantees to Pyongyang.
Washington has declared it has no intention of attacking North Korea and will respect its sovereignty. It also affirmed it has no nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula.
Washington -- which had previously dubbed North Korea part of an "axis of evil" -- has also declared it will work to "normalize" relations with Pyongyang over time. Japan has said it will do the same.
U.S. negotiator Christopher Hill said in Beijing today that North Korea had made the "right decision."
"It is a big decision for them (North Korea), a big undertaking, but it's absolutely the right decision for them," Hill said. "The security, the success, the prosperity of the DPRK does not depend on nuclear weapons. In fact, it depends on relations with others. So this is a moment which I think will be a very important moment in their history, to make this turn, and to turn away from these sorts of weapons and toward interactions with their neighbors and with other countries in the world."
Analysts say the agreement is a statement of principles whose details must still be worked out. But many today are expressing "cautious optimism" that the North Korean nuclear crisis will indeed be solved peacefully.
Lai Hongyi, a research fellow at the East Asian Institute in Singapore, told RFE/RL that the joint statement indicates that all six parties are committed to the negotiation process.
"I have really been surprised, also a bit thrilled, by the current agreement, tentative agreement, reached by the six parties," Lai said. "This is a very positive sign that indicates that all the parties involved don't want the talks to fail."
"The security, the success, the prosperity of the DPRK does not depend on nuclear weapons. In fact, it depends on relations with others. So this is a moment which I think will be a very important moment in their history, to make this turn, and to turn away from these sorts of weapons and toward interactions with their neighbors and with other countries in the world." -- U.S. negotiator Christopher Hill
But Lai, who has written extensively on the North Korea nuclear crisis, said that the negotiations could yet derail.
That is because the joint statement puts off some of the toughest problems for future discussion.
One of these is the question of whether North Korea can have a civilian nuclear program in the future.
In the joint statement, Pyongyang affirms it "has the right to peaceful uses of nuclear energy." And the other parties agree to discuss "at an appropriate time" the subject of providing North Korea with a light-water commercial energy reactor.
The timing and conditions for such a discussion are not spelled out. Reuters reported that under the terms of the agreement, North Korea would have the right to again have a civilian nuclear program if it regains international trust.
Lai noted that Washington has often said it fears Pyongyang would use any new commercial nuclear program as a cover for covertly pursuing weapons development. Western states accuse Pyongyang of doing just that to obtain the weapons it now has.
"The [North Korean] civilian nuclear program is a very moderate one, but the U.S. is still worried that it is some kind of small Pandora's box and the North Koreans can still open it in the future even though it will not lead to any immediate dangers," Lai said. "I think that the U.S. still will not trust the North Koreans and doesn't want to give this option to the North Koreans."
Distrust has already led to the breakdown of a previous landmark agreement to solve the nuclear crisis. That was the so-called "Agreed Framework" signed by the U.S. and North Korea in 1994.
The 1994 deal called on North Korea to freeze and eventually dismantle its nuclear facilities. It also required Pyongyang to come into compliance with UN nuclear agency safeguards to assure it had no weapons program.
In exchange, Washington agreed to lead an international consortium to oversee and finance the construction of two energy-producing light-water reactors in North Korea. It also agreed to ship fuel oil to Pyongyang.
But the 1994 deal collapsed amid charges of bad faith on each side. Pyongyang later said it needed to develop nuclear weapons to safeguard itself from Washington.
Whether the fundamental distrust on both sides can now be bridged may become clearer when the next round of six-party talks begins in Beijing in November. The exact date of the meeting has not yet been announced.