WASHINGTON — North Korea raised hopes Wednesday for a major easing in nuclear tensions under its youthful new leader, agreeing to suspend uranium enrichment at a key facility and refrain from missile and nuclear tests in exchange for a mountain of critically needed U.S. food aid.
It was only a preliminary step but a necessary one to restart broader six-nation negotiations that would lay down terms for what the North could get in return for abandoning its nuclear weapons program. Pyongyang pulled out of those talks in 2009 and seemingly has viewed the nuclear program as key to the survival of its dynastic, communist regime, now entering its third generation.
But the announcement, just over two months after the death of longtime ruler Kim Jong Il, also opened a door for the secretive government under his untested youngest son, Kim Jong Un, to improve ties with the United States and win critically needed aid and international acceptance.
It also opened the way for international nuclear inspections after years when the North's program went unmonitored.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the agreement, which was announced at separate but simultaneous statements by the long-time adversaries, was a modest step but also "a reminder that the world is transforming around us."
"We, of course, will be watching closely and judging North Korea's new leaders by their actions," Clinton told a congressional hearing.
Indeed, North Korea has reneged on nuclear commitments in the past. An accord under the six-party talks collapsed in 2008 when Pyongyang refused to abide by verification that U.S. diplomats claimed had been agreed upon.
The North Korean Foreign Ministry's statement, issued by the state-run news agency, said the North had agreed to the nuclear moratoriums and U.N. inspectors "with a view to maintaining positive atmosphere" for the U.S.-North Korea talks.
North Korea faces tough U.N. sanctions that were tightened in 2009 when it conducted its second nuclear test and fired a long-range rocket. In late 2010, it unveiled a uranium enrichment facility that could give North Korea a second route to manufacture nuclear weapons in addition to its existing plutonium-based program.
In the meantime, its people have continued to go hungry. The North suffered famine in the 1990s and appealed for the aid a year ago to alleviate its chronic food shortages. U.S. charities reported after a trip to North Korea last fall that children were suffering "slow starvation."
Clinton said the United States will meet with North Korea to finalize details for a proposed package of 240,000 metric tons of food aid. She said intensive monitoring of the aid would be required — a reflection of U.S. concerns that food could be diverted to the North's powerful military.
A senior Obama administration official said it was only in talks last week in Beijing that presaged Wednesday's announcement that the North had dropped its demand for rice and grains — viewed as easier to divert — and agreed to accept the U.S. "nutritional assistance" such as corn soy blend and other food targeted to young children and pregnant women.
The official spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity because of diplomatic sensitivity.
North Korea's chief rival, South Korea, a staunch U.S. ally supported by 28,000 American troops, welcomed the agreement, although it has yet to receive the apology it wants from the North for two military attacks that killed 50 South Koreans in 2010.
Those hostilities nearly pitched the divided Peninsula into war, and the elder Kim's Dec. 17 death had fueled concern that the North could attack again and conduct another nuclear test.
Wednesday's announcement should ease those concerns, and was a welcome development for President Barack Obama in an election year when he will be looking to avoid another security crisis to add to the pressing list of urgent U.S. foreign policy concerns. Those include Iran's nuclear program, the bloodshed in Syria and a deeply unstable Afghanistan.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he hoped North Korea would take steps toward "a verifiable denuclearization of the Korean peninsula." Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hague said it was positive news and that the change in North Korean leadership offered a chance for "renewed engagement with the international community."
Outsiders have been closely watching how the younger Kim, believed to be in his late 20s, handles nuclear diplomacy with the United States and delicate relations with South Korea. His consolidation of power, with the help of senior advisers who worked with his father and grandfather, appears to be going smoothly, although determining the intentions and internal dynamics in Pyongyang is notoriously difficult.
Since Kim Jong Il's death, North Korea has vowed to maintain the late leader's policies and has linked its nuclear program to Kim's legacy. Many observers are skeptical whether North Korea will ever give up its nuclear program.
"North Korea uses (the nuclear program) as leverage to win concessions in return for disarmament measures. Since Kim Jong Il's death, it has called (the program) the country's most important achievement," Baek Seung-joo, an analyst at the state-run Korea Institute for Defense Analyses in South Korea, said. "There is still a long way to go."
While Democratic lawmakers in the U.S. welcomed the agreement, some Republicans reacted with skepticism, warning that Washington was heading down a path it has trod before — offering aid in return for nuclear commitments, only to see North Korea renege.
"Pyongyang will likely continue its clandestine nuclear weapons program right under our noses. We have bought this bridge several times before," said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
The administration official echoed some of that caution. But he also said the U.S. took it as a positive sign that the new North Korean leadership had carried on with a policy set in train before Kim Jong Il's death, and had shown some swiftness in reaching the accord before the official 100-day mourning period was over.
While North Korea's commitments meet the pre-steps set by the U.S. for the resumption of six-party disarmament-for-aid talks, the official said the U.S. had made no promise to restart them. He said North Korea would first have to make good on its latest commitments. The U.S. would also have to map out a strategy with the other parties in the talks — China, Japan, Russia and South Korea — on what they could offer the North in return for the irreversible dismantling of its nuclear weapons program.
The U.S. and North Korean statements on the agreement differed on some details, including whether inspectors from U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency would be allowed into both the uranium enrichment and plutonium-based programs. The North Korean statement referred only to uranium enrichment.
A senior Obama administration official acknowledged that omission but said the U.S. was in no doubt that the North had agreed to let IAEA inspectors in to confirm the disabling of plutonium-producing reactor at its main nuclear complex in Yongbyon.
Foster Klug reported from Seoul. Associated Press writers Hyung-jin Kim in Seoul and Edith Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.