The surprise move by the economically destitute pariah state comes three months after the death of the longtime dictator Kim Jong-il and will fuel hopes of a more enlightened policy by his son and successor Kim Jong-un.
However the deal with Pyongyang, which includes a moratorium on nuclear and missile tests as well as allowing international IAEA inspectors back into North Korea, was also accompanied by a widespread note of caution from both diplomats and analysts.
The North has repeatedly offered such concessions in return for aid and short-term gain, only to renege to on its commitments.
Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, welcomed the North Korean move, but also expressed reservations.
“The United States, I will be quick to add, still has profound concerns, but on the occasion of Kim Jong-il’s death, I said that it is our hope that the new leadership will choose to guide their nation onto the path of peace by living up to its obligations,” she said.
“Today’s announcement represents a modest first step in the right direction. We, of course, will be watching closely and judging North Korea’s new leaders by their actions.”
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), whose inspectors were expelled by the North in 2002 and 2009, said it was ready and waiting to begin verification visits again.
“Pending further details, we stand ready to return to Yongbyon to undertake monitoring activities upon request and with the agreement of the agency’s Board of Governors,” the IAEA said in a statement.
Announcing the details of the deal simultaneously with Washington, the official North Korean news agency said that it was offering the concessions “with a view to maintaining positive atmosphere” for the Six Party disarmament talks which have been frozen since 2009.
North Korea has been reeling under economic sanctions since it conducted a second nuclear test in 2009, which was followed by a series of belligerent actions against South Korea, including the shelling marine base and the torpedoing a warship, the Cheonan.
In return for reopening its nuclear facilities for inspection, North Korea is to receive 240,000 tonnes of food aid and assurances from the US that it would discuss the lifting of sanctions and the possible provision of light-water reactors to generate electricity.
The joint announcement, which caught many analysts off guard, came after three meetings between Washington and Pyongyang over the last eight months, the most recent of which took place in Beijing last week.
However at the time Glyn Davies, the US special representative for North Korea policy, said only that a “little bit of progress” had been made, but that the tone and substance of the talks remained similar to those of the Kim Jong-il era.
At the end of the second day, he said: “I think the word ‘breakthrough’ goes way too far, folks. I wouldn’t want anybody using the word ‘breakthrough’.”
North Korea was said to have demanded 300,000 tonnes of food aid during the talks, raising speculation that the new leadership was desperate for supplies to mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il Sung, the North’s original dictator, on April 15.
North Korea specialises in staging propaganda showpieces and has been gearing up for a mammoth celebration of the event which is also supposed to mark the point when North Korea becomes a ‘prosperous’ nation.
A North Korean foreign ministry spokesman added that the IAEA inspections, the moratoria on nuclear tests, long-range missile launches, and uranium enrichment at its Yongbyon plant would be allowed “while productive dialogues continue”.
Such caveats from the North’s negotiators ultimately led to the breakdown of similar aid-for-denuclearisation deals in 2002 and 2008, leaving many analysts remaining sceptical that a fresh round of talks would yield a significantly different outcome.
“It seems as if the game of cat and mouse has started again,” said Aidan Foster Carter, a North Korea expert at Leeds University, “this is a start, but we must wait and see what actually happens, whether the IAEA inspectors are really allowed in, and what they are able to see”.
The Obama administration, which until now has pledged it would not repeat the mistakes of the George W. Bush era and re-enter negotiations with the North, has opened itself to criticism that it has fallen into exactly that trap.
“There are doubters who will say ‘we’ve already bought this horse twice and failed, why buy it for a third time,” said Bonnie S. Glaser, Korea expert at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
“My understanding is that the administration hopes that this process could at least slow down North Korea’s nuclear development, which is better than nothing, even if almost everyone agrees that hopes of North Korea actually denuclearising have now all but evaporated.”