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Breaking an impasse, the United States and North Korea agreed early Saturday on measures to ease nuclear tensions on the Korean peninsula and prepare diplomatic links.

But, after weeklong talks, both sides stressed that many issues would have to be resolved in a complex series of tradeoffs - including the contentious problem of free access for international inspectors to North Korea's nuclear facilities.In a joint statement, the United States said it would help North Korea switch to safer nuclear technology, which can less easily produce bomb-making plutonium.

North Korea said it would continue to observe a freeze on nuclear activities; would not re-process thousands of spent fuel rods that could produce enough plutonium for five atomic weapons; and would remain part of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which is meant to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons.

"It's a first step," U.S. chief delegate Robert L. Gallucci told reporters. "But we hope from this first step we can take other steps, and there are a bunch of those to be taken."

Gallucci said the agreement committed North Korea in principle to accepting "special inspections" of its nuclear plants, to clear up suspicions that the communist country extracted sufficient plutonium in the past to develop a nuclear bomb.

"There is agreement in principle to the concept of special inspections, but they are silent on when they will be implemented," Gal-luc-ci said.

But he made it plain that Washington would not give up its campaign and said North Korea would not be given a modern light-water reactor to replace its outdated technology until it agreed to the inspections.

North Korea has so far blocked access to two sites, which the West suspects may contain evidence that North Korea in the past extracted plutonium for a nuclear weapon. North Korea argues they are standard military sites and the checks violate its sovereignty.

North Korean chief negotiator, Kang Sok Ju, told journalists that his country's future attitude to special inspections would depend on the "partiality" of investigators from the International Atomic Energy Agency. In the past Pyongyang has accused IAEA officials of being spies for the United States and its South Korean allies.

Gallucci and Kang said they would meet again in Geneva on Sept. 23 to iron out further difficulties.

Kang said North Korea would only stop construction of further graphite reactors once it received firm guarantees that it would get the light-water reactors, which cost up to $2 billion, and additional compensation.

The graphite-cooled reactors can produce more plutonium than the more light-water variety. Gallucci said he was confident that the United States could get together an international consortium to provide the necessary technology and funding.

The two sides also said that the final fate of 8,000 spent fuel rods currently corroding in a cooling pond north of Pyongyang remained undecided.

North Korea provoked a crisis earlier this year by removing the rods from its Yongbyon nuclear plant in defiance of the IAEA nuclear watchdog.

Western experts say reprocessing would leave North Korea with enough plutonium for five nuclear bombs.