In a new and promising development, the United States and North Korea have reached tentative agreement on a far-reaching pact that could ultimately result in North Korea ending its nuclear program. In return, it is to receive much-needed energy aid, and the U.S. will take steps to remove its designation of North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism. The two countries will also hold bilateral talks to normalize their relations — most significant in view of the nearly six-decade-long hostility between them.

The pact is the product of years of six-party talks in which China has played a leading role. Also participating are Russia, Japan and South Korea.

Though much remains to be done, and many pitfalls must be overcome, the agreement represents a major turnabout by the Bush administration. In the lead-up to the Iraq war, the administration included North Korea, along with Iraq and Iran, in its notorious “axis of evil.” It consistently rejected North Korean calls for bilateral talks.

The U.S. peace movement’s pressure on the Bush administration to fulfill its part of the pact will be important for several reasons.

First, of course, is the possibility to defuse a potential present-day conflict. But also significant is the precedent this agreement sets for the Bush administration to negotiate with those it perceives as opponents instead of threatening them with destruction. Now, why shouldn’t the administration hold direct talks with Iran, instead of beating the drums for a new war?

Pyongyang’s commitment to shutting and sealing its Yongbyon nuclear facilities, disclosing its nuclear programs and inviting back International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors is an important development on the road to nuclear disarmament. But it is the United States, as the world’s leading nuclear weapons power, which must take the first steps on worldwide, complete nuclear disarmament. That is the only guarantee that the scourge of nuclear arms, which could destroy humanity, will be eliminated forever from the planet.