WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Bush on Wednesday said critics of the North Korea nuclear deal were “flat wrong,” as the two Koreas agreed to resume ministerial talks on economic cooperation and cross-border ties.
The breakthrough energy-for-arms deal at six-party talks in Beijing, coming months after North Korea’s first nuclear test last October, requires the secretive state to shutter its Yongbyon reactor within 60 days in exchange for 50,000 tonnes of fuel oil or equivalent aid.
After the 60-day period, energy-hungry North Korea would receive another 950,000 tonnes of fuel oil, or equivalent aid, when it takes further steps to disable its nuclear capabilities.
Bush disagreed with critics like John Bolton, his former ambassador to the United Nations, who said the deal rewarded North Korea by relieving the economically strapped country of financial pressure for only partially dismantling its nuclear program.
“I changed the dynamic on the North Korean issue by convincing other people to be at the table with us,” Bush said, citing the importance of having China, South Korea, Japan and Russia involved in the accord.
“So the assessment made by some that this is not a good deal is flat wrong,” Bush said. “Now, those who say the North Koreans have got to prove themselves by actually following through on the deal are right, and I‘m one.”
Resumption of talks between the two Koreas -- technically still at war -- signaled renewed momentum toward reconciliation following Tuesday’s breakthrough in talks on dismantling the North’s nuclear arms program.
South Korea’s Unification Ministry said delegates would meet in the North Korean border city of Kaesong on Thursday to discuss when to open new talks. The dialogue between the two Koreas collapsed in acrimony after Pyongyang tested a volley of missiles last July.
North Korea’s state-run news agency said Pyongyang agreed to the proposal for renewed contact between the two countries, whose 1950-53 war ended with an armistice and left the Korean peninsula divided by one of the world’s most heavily armed borders.
“This is a unique deal,” said Bush, who had previously declared North Korea part of an “axis of evil” with Iran and pre-war Iraq.
“This is good progress, it is a good first step, there’s a lot of work to be done to make sure that the commitments made in this agreement become reality. But I believe it’s an important step in the right direction,” he said.
The marathon talks reached a compromise that chief U.S. negotiator Christopher Hill said hinged on the amount of energy aid offered.
“It was the energy issue and it was our willingness to go bigger on energy in return for them going deeper on denuclearization,” he said.
Analysts said the agreement was a step forward but that there were serious challenges ahead.
“Freezing, suspending, disabling isn’t necessarily the same as abandonment,” said Zhang Lianggui, a North Korea specialist at the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Party School, adding that full abandonment was a more difficult and long-term issue.
South Korean opposition lawmaker Park Geun-hye, a prominent contender in the presidential election in December, said her country and the United States needed to prevent North Korea from exploiting differences over implementing the deal.
“As long as North Korea perceives a gap among the international community, it will probably not give up its nuclear aspirations,” she said in Washington.
The agreement also included provisions for the United States and Japan to discuss normalizing ties with North Korea, and said Washington would begin the process of removing Pyongyang from its list of state sponsors of terrorism.
Japan said it would not give economic assistance until North Korea resolves the dispute over Pyongyang’s abduction of Japanese nationals from their homeland in the 1970s and 1980s to help train its spies.
Some analysts said moves toward normalization were symbolically more important to isolated North Korea than aid for the impoverished country.
“Their ultimate goal is not nuclear weapons but two things -- normalizing relations with the United States, especially economic and security ties, and becoming a normal state accepted in international society,” said Xu Guangyu, an analyst at the China Arms Control and Disarmament Association. “That’s their true goal.”
Additional reporting by Lee Jin-joo in Seoul, Lindsay Beck in Beijing, Linda Sieg in Tokyo, and Paul Eckert in Washington