US tests North Korea's intentions with new deal
by David Straub
Vague agreements with North Korea have failed in the past, but the latest deal is worth making because it is an opportunity to test the real intentions of the country's new leadership
It would be easy to dismiss the agreement that the United States announced this week with North Korea as déjà vu all over again, but on balance it was a deal worth making. North Korea said it would "temporarily" freeze activities including uranium enrichment at its declared nuclear facilities at Yongbyon, and refrain from nuclear tests and long-range missile launches "while productive dialogues continue". In return, the US agreed to ship 240,000 metric tons of food aid to North Korea over the coming year. Ordinary North Koreans are certainly malnourished and could use the food.
The deal was already in the works when Kim Jong Il died suddenly late last year, and the quick resumption of talks with the US and the announcement of this agreement suggest continuity in North Korea after the leadership succession. However, American officials acknowledge that North Korea can reverse these steps at will, and the deal does not cover all aspects of the nuclear programme, such as the probable additional uranium enrichment facilities elsewhere in the country. Indeed, most experts believe that the country is not prepared to give up its nuclear weapons programmes and that its diplomatic efforts are directed at obtaining foreign aid and deflecting pressures from the US and South Korea until it is eventually accepted as a nuclear weapons state.
But, if implemented, the agreement offers several advantages over the status quo. It will make it likelier that North Korea will refrain from provocations this year. In 2012, both the US and its ally South Korea will hold presidential elections, and the US is also focused on the Iranian crisis. The international community will get its first look inside Yongbyon in three years and can learn more about the new uranium enrichment facility there. And the deal also makes it likelier that there will be an early resumption of six party talks in Beijing, where the real work of trying to induce North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons programmes will take place.
Unfortunately, it is clear that there is not much more to the agreement than was announced yesterday. In the past, implementing vague pacts with North Korea has proven difficult and sometimes failed. Even if the deal is implemented and facilitates a resumption of six party talks, the North Korean statement suggested that very difficult negotiations lie ahead. They said that lifting US sanctions and providing North Korea with light water reactors for energy generation must be at the top of the agenda when talks resume. They certainly will not be, although the US may be willing to consider them as part of a larger, more substantial nuclear deal.
Although the new leaders in North Korea have given no indication yet that they are fundamentally rethinking their country's negative approach to the world, it is a new leadership and the US wants to try to get off on a good foot with it and test its intentions. Even if, as is likely, the new leadership in Pyongyang does not mark a major improvement over the old, the current diplomatic effort will demonstrate American sincerity and facilitate stronger international support for a tougher approach, should that become necessary.
David Straub is associate director of the Korean studies programme at Stanford University and a former director of the office of Korean affairs at the US Department of State