WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A U.S. team, including technical experts, will head to North Korea next week after the communist country agreed to begin disabling its nuclear weapons facilities, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill said Wednesday.
An aerial image of the Yongbyon nuclear facility which Pyongyang says it is ready to dismantle.
Hill's remarks came shortly after the Bush administration said Pyongyang had agreed to disable its nuclear facilities at Yongbyon -- where plutonium is produced -- by the end of this year in a deal forged by the so-called six-party talks in Beijing.
By "disable," Hill said, the agreement means making it difficult to restart a nuclear program by sealing the facility and removing certain components that would not be easy to replace.
The goal in the next phase, the assistant secretary of state said, is complete dismantlement, but that could take as long as five years.
In a statement, President Bush said he welcomes the deal, which "maps out additional steps toward our ultimate goal of full and verifiable denuclearization."
"Today's announcement reflects the common commitment of the participants in the Six-Party Talks to realize a Korean Peninsula that is free of nuclear weapons," the president said.
The agreement, thrashed out at the so-called six-party talks in Beijing, was actually signed September 30, but kept under wraps until now.
The Yongbyon complex has been at the center of North Korea's weapons programs for decades and is believed to have produced a nuclear device detonated a year ago by Pyongyang to prove its nuclear capability.
"This is a new and significant step toward denuclearization," said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack.
He called the deal a "step along the way" and said the United States hopes the agreement will be implemented.
It builds on the original February 13 agreement sealed in an earlier round of the six-party talks. Those talks include the United States, North Korea, South Korea, China, Japan and Russia.
Based on the February agreement, North Korea has shut down and sealed the Yongbyon nuclear facility, though conservative allies of the Bush administration -- especially former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton -- have raised sharp questions about whether the communist regime would follow through on its promises.
The latest agreement provides for the United States to take the lead in making sure the nuclear facilities actually are disabled.
"A U.S. team sent by the six-party talks will journey to North Korea in the next week at the invitation of the North Koreans to begin disabling North Korea's means of producing bomb making material," Hill said.
According to one administration official, North Korea agreed to "provide a complete and correct declaration of all its nuclear programs -- including clarification regarding the uranium issue" by December 31, 2007.
The official added that North Korea also agreed "not to transfer nuclear materials, technology, or know-how" under the terms of the deal.
In exchange, Washington reiterated its intent to follow through on promises to eventually remove its designation of North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism and terminate its application of the Trading with the Enemy Act, provided that North Korea fulfills its end of the bargain.
Hill said the agreement brings North Korea to an "important juncture."
"This is a hopeful sign, of course, but we still have a long way to go to achieve our objective of complete denuclearization," Hill said. "It is also important to understand that this is a negotiation, and all sides -- including ours -- will need to give at the bargaining table in order to get." E-mail to a friend
CNN's Ed Henry and Zain Verjee contributed to this report
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