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.