WASHINGTON — IF fully implemented, the US-North Korea nuclear pact reached on Oct. 18 will crack the long isolation of the Pyongyang regime and perhaps set it on a course toward normal political and economic relations with its neighbors and the Western world.
But as any diplomat who has negotiated with a nation sometimes tagged ``The Hermit Kingdom'' knows, North Korea remains unpredictable even after agreements have been signed. It will take years for all provisions of the nuclear deal to be fulfilled, allowing plenty of time for glitches to derail progress.
Still, it appears that a threshold of sorts has been reached. With the accession to power of Kim Jong Il, son of the late, longtime leader Kim Il Sung, North Korea may have finally decided that its national policy of complete self-reliance is simply untenable in the modern era.
The pact struck in Geneva ``has laid the groundwork for a fundamental solution of the nuclear issue and for the maintenance of peace and stability on the Korean peninsula,'' said a South Korean government statement on Oct. 18.
As of this writing, full details of the nuclear agreement remained unclear. Officials in Washington and Pyongyang were still studying the deal reached by their chief negotiators and were expected to approve an Oct. 21 signing ceremony. But it appeared that under the pact, North Korea in essence agreed to give up any possibility of further nuclear- weapon construction. US intelligence agencies have long suspected Pyongyang of maintaining an extensive bomb program, though North Korea claims its nuclear facilities are only for peaceful purposes.
North Korea evidently has agreed to fully reenter the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, allowing unfettered checks by international inspectors of declared nuclear sites. Construction and any operation of the country's current nuclear reactors will be frozen. Eventually these reactors will be replaced with models featuring Western technology that is much less suited for the clandestine production of bomb-ready fissile material.
South Korea will play a key role in the construction of these new reactors. Until now, Pyongyang had balked at South Korea playing such a role in this project.
The US, for its part, has agreed to arrange for coal and oil supplies to fuel North Korea's moribund industry while the new reactors are being built. It will reportedly allow Pyongyang to keep control of 8,000 recently withdrawn nuclear-fuel rods, until the new reactors are operational - a key concession, as the rods theoretically can be reprocessed into bomb-grade plutonium.
The US also apparently danced around North Korea's reluctance to allow inspections that could reveal whether Pyongyang already has a nuclear bomb or two somewhere in a bunker. International Atomic Energy Agency officials want to look at a suspected nuclear waste dump, to see whether they can find evidence of plutonium separation.
After fiercely resisting this special inspection, North Korea will now apparently allow it - but only after an interim period of perhaps five to six years, while the nation's new power reactors are under construction. In essence, the United States may have decided that certain knowledge about North Korea's current arsenal is not as important as capping weapons production now.
South Korean Foreign Minister Han Sung Joo admitted that ``all the pre-set goals have not been accomplished'' in the US-North Korean negotiations. But at a press conference he still urged support for the new accord.
Lastly, the United States has agreed to exchange diplomatic liaison offices with North Korea. In time, if relations develop smoothly, these outposts might be upgraded in status to full embassies, though such a process is not spelled out in the Geneva pact.
The exchange of diplomats could be the symbol of a fundamentally changed relation between the two nations - as with the United States and Vietnam.