The most protracted talks over the standoff on the Korean peninsula since the Korean War ended in 1953 concluded Monday with a facesaving "statement of principles."
North Korea agreed to give up its "existing nuclear weapons" and return to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. The United States joined others at the six-party talks in expressing "respect" for North Korea's claim to "the right to peaceful uses of nuclear energy," and offering energy assistance and economic cooperation.
The agreement skirts key issues, such as the timing of concessions, that will be addressed when talks resume in November. But the deal is seen as a major victory for international diplomacy, with a pariah country opting for cooperation and assistance - and ultimately survival - over confrontation. The development, some say, could lead to steady change on the Korean peninsula.
"This is a Libya-style deal," says Joseph Cirincione, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, referring to Libya's 2003 pledge to give up weapons of mass destruction. "North Korea realized it has more to gain economically, politically, and diplomatically by giving up its nuclear weapons program than by keeping them."
The deal is seen by some analysts as a clear victory for Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's diplomatic approach over administration forces favoring a more confrontational approach.
Mohammed ElBaradei, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, cited the agreement as proof that "dialogue can work" - an example he indicated might apply to Iran.
The White House welcomed the accord but said Pyongyang must live up to its obligations and dismantle its nuclear programs.
President Bush, who three years ago questioned whether it was possible to verify any deal with North Korea's leader Kim Jong Il, called the North Korean commitment a "step forward" but said North Korea needed to realize "We're serious about this and that we expect there to be a verifiable process." The question, he said, is "over time, will all parties adhere to the agreement?"
Chief US negotiator Christopher Hill called on the North to shut down its main reactor complex as a sign of good faith.
The six-party agreement - coupled with a promise to discuss a suspended light-water nuclear energy project - came just a week after Mr. Hill declared that North Korea's insistence on the right to nuclear energy for peacetime purposes was "a nonstarter."
Hill, who led the US delegation throughout the fourth round of the talks that began in Beijing in July, joined others in signing off on the statement after intense pressure from South Korea and talks with top US officials. The final statement was drafted by China, which hosted the talks beginning in February 2003.
South Korean leaders, avidly pursuing reconciliation with North Korea, were ecstatic about the statement, even as they acknowledged the need for more talks - and action - to bring about a final agreement.
The agreement comes after an extended period of softening rhetoric. Mr. Bush, in his State of the Union address in 2002, famously included North Korea in an "axis of evil," along with Iraq and Iran, and Ms. Rice in January, before she became secretary of state, identified North Korea as an "outpost of tyranny."
No such comments, however, have emanated from US officials in Washington since then, with the US making pointed statements that it respected the North's sovereignty and had no intention of attacking the country.
But contentious issues remain. In Beijing Monday, Hill expressed "serious concerns" about human rights and other issues he said must be addressed for the two countries to move beyond decades of enmity.
"The US acceptance of the joint statement should in no way be interpreted as meaning we accept all aspects of [North Korea's] system, human rights situation or treatment of its people," Hill said in a closing statement.
Still, analysts in Seoul say that Hill essentially yielded to North - and South - Korean demands in a deal that will enable North Korea to keep pressing for light water nuclear energy reactors as promised by the 1994 Geneva framework agreement under which the North gave up its program for producing nuclear warheads with plutonium.
That deal fell apart after a senior North Korean diplomat appeared to have acknowledged to Hill's predecessor, James Kelly, in 2002 the existence of a secret uranium enrichment program.
The North is expected to demand fast action on a statement of "willingness" on the part of all the parties - China, Japan, and Russia as well as South Korea and the US - to provide energy assistance.
The statement also contained another significant nod to the North - that the US and North Korea "take steps to normalize relations."
A central point of later negotiation will be the question of who does what first in terms of dismantlement or economic assistance.
Darryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association in Washington, says that while the statement does not put the issue to rest, it hints at how it will be addressed by saying "coordinated steps [will be taken] in line with commitment for commitment, action for action."
But the agreement, he adds, is only the beginning of a difficult road ahead. The accord "fails to do what the 1994 agreement framework also failed to do - and that is to really settle the issue of North Korea's insistence on light-water nuclear energy capabilities."
It essentially "kicks the issue down the road," he says. He adds that "this may be the wise way to deal with it" for now. "But it's still something - a big thing - they will need to tackle."
• Wire material was used in this report.