North Korea’s agreement to suspend nuclear tests and uranium enrichment in exchange for food aid provides little insight into whether new leader Kim Jong-un is seeking to soften the totalitarian nation’s posture toward the rest of the world.
The agreement revealed Wednesday would have been announced in December if longtime dictator Kim Jong-il had not died.
U.S. officials framed the agreement as a modest first step toward thawing relations with Pyongyang, where a succession process is under way to make Kim’s 27-year-old son, Kim Jong-un, the youngest person ever to head a nuclear-armed nation.
Regional analysts cautioned against reading too deeply into the development.
“It’s important to understand that the outlines in the agreement were already essentially in place in December before Kim Jong-il died,” said Scott Snyder, who heads the program on U.S.-Korea policy at the Council on Foreign Relations.
“So it’s hard to say much about whether this represents anything about the decision-making process of the new leadership because it’s basically, in terms of the overall direction of the agreement, a decision that the father made. It just hadn’t been stamped.”
Mr. Snyder noted that a Feb. 23 meeting between U.S. and North Korean officials, which spawned Wednesday’s joint announcement by the two nations, actually had been scheduled for late December.
The State Department announced the agreement in a statement that mirrored remarks issued at the same time by Pyongyang’s ministry of foreign affairs to North Korea’s state media.
Under the agreement, North Korea will put a moratorium on nuclear tests, long-range missile launches and uranium-enrichment activities at its Yongbyon nuclear facility.
North Korea also will allow inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency to return to “verify and monitor the moratorium on uranium enrichment activities at Yongbyon and confirm the disablement of the [nuclear] reactor and associated facilities,” said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.
While the State Department took care not to characterize the agreement as a quid pro quo, Ms. Nuland said U.S. officials have agreed to meet with North Korean representatives.
They will “finalize administrative details necessary to move forward with our proposed package of 240,000 metric tons of nutritional assistance along with the intensive monitoring required for the delivery of such assistance,” she said.
Concerns over the likelihood that Kim Jong-un will do little to break from the isolationist bent embraced by his father have run high since last weekend.
On Sunday, a day before the U.S. and South Korea began a 12-day joint military exercise, Mr. Kim said that if North Korea felt provoked, it would make a powerful military strike on South Korea.
Getting duped by the North
The agreement triggered skeptical reactions on Capitol Hill, particularly among Republicans long critical of using food aid as an incentive to deter North Korean nuclear-weapons ambitions.
“Years of getting duped by North Korea should tell us that verification on their turf is extremely difficult, if not impossible,” said Rep. Edward R. Royce, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on terrorism, nonproliferation and trade.
“That applies to food aid distribution, where the military has stolen food aid, or nuclear disarmament. Last year, I passed legislation prohibiting food aid to any country that may divert it for unauthorized use,” the California Republican added.
The United States has provided about $800 million in food aid to North Korea since 1996. But a breakdown in relations with Pyongyang brought the aid to a halt during recent years.
Last April, in response to international concerns over the spread of starvation, particularly among women and children, the U.N. World Food Program called for $224 million in emergency aid for North Korea.
The United States and South Korea, traditionally the largest aid donors to North Korea, have refused to fund the request. So have others in the international community.
While the Obama administration has during recent months disputed reports that it was planning to resume the aid, Wednesday’s development suggests the contrary.
The contradiction prompted Mr. Royce to assert that “Congress must ensure that the administration is not skirting this law.”
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said the agreement “sounds a lot like the failed agreements of the past.”
“North Korea’s promise to suspend certain nuclear activities can’t be taken at face value Pyongyang will likely continue its clandestine nuclear weapons program right under our noses,” the Florida Republican said.
“We have bought this bridge several times before.”
Devil in the details
Bruce Klingner of the Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center, said, “With North Korea, the devil is always in the details, so we have to ensure that North Korea has agreed to what we think they have agreed to.”
He noted that past U.S. administrations have made a habit of embracing vaguely worded concessions by the North Koreans out of a desire to “maintain an illusion of progress.”
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Wednesday that U.S. officials will “be watching closely and judging North Korea’s new leaders by their actions.”
She called the agreement “a modest first step in the right direction [and a] reminder that the world is transforming around us.”
The agreement followed the Feb. 23 meeting in Beijing between Glyn Davies, the U.S. special representative for North Korea policy, and Kim Kye-gwan, North Korea’s first vice foreign minister.
At the meeting, U.S. officials also reaffirmed that Washington has no “hostile intent toward” North Korea and “is prepared to take steps to improve our bilateral relationship in the spirit of mutual respect for sovereignty and equality,” Ms. Nuland said.
Such positive rhetoric signals the first thaw in U.S.-North Korea relations since six-nation talks with Pyongyang broke down after the communist government violated a 2005 agreement to abandon its pursuit of nuclear weapons in exchange for aid and security guarantees.
The six-nation talks - involving the United States, Russia, China, Japan and North and South Korea - were declared effectively dead in 2009 when North Korea claimed to have successfully created an underground nuclear explosion.