North Korea may have agreed to freeze its nuclear weapons program in return for foreign fuel aid, but according to Hugh White, Head of the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the ANU, there’s a long way to go yet.

The deal, reached at six-party talks in Beijing, has been dubbed by President Bush as “the best opportunity to use diplomacy to address North Korea’s nuclear programme” and Bush’s spokesman described it as a “very important first step” towards the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula.

But according to White, “this is a million miles from being the end of the story.”

“It’s very unclear what North Korea is giving up at this stage. Although reporting says so far that they’ve agreed to halt operations at Yongbyon, their main overt nuclear facility and reactor and readmit inspectors, they haven’t at this stage agreed to surrender weapons,” says White. “Nor is it clear that there’s any effective requirement for them to expose the unknown, covert parts of their nuclear program…”

And while White says that the agreement is a positive development (at least the parties are talking now), it’s still a win/win for North Korea in many ways.

“North Koreans win some sort of gold medal for their negotiating tactics, they get what they want,” White told Crikey. “The US and allies have moved their position a lot.”

“The old position… including the September 05 agreement which then went nowhere, was that the US would provide North Korea with nothing until the North Koreans had totally disarmed…” says White.

White told Crikey that ever since it first came to power, the Bush administration has taken a non negotiable approach.

“The decision by the US to accept this deal is a complete reversal of the US administration’s position every since it came to office…. They said you don’t negotiate…,” says White.

“But North Korea let off a bomb and now the US is saying, ‘we’ll give you a few things.'”

And according to White, the shift in approach has a lot to do with US politics.

“What’s driving the US is a determination to rescue some vestige of the administration’s credentials as a national security manager,” says White. “They’ve decided to take a route that looks a lot more like the Clinton route rather than John Bolton route… negotiation…”

And North Korea can afford to be cocky, says White, because the Iraq invasion has “weakened the US position” considerably.

“Little countries like North Korea that are willing to weather the storm can defy the US at little cost as long as they know the US won’t invade,” says White. “Since Iraq went bad they can pretty sure that the US has no usable military options…”

For Japan, which has refused to provide heavy fuel oil until the issue of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea since the 1970s is resolved, it’s also about politics, but of a very different kind.

As well as the abductee issue, there’s the small matter of geography. “North Korea might one day in the future have a missile it could put a nuclear weapon on that could reach the US. But it already has one that can reach Japan,” says White.

“The stakes are much higher for Japan. If we lived as close to North Korea we’d be much more unwilling to negotiate too.”