The U.S. State Department announced yesterday that it had reached an agreement with North Korea to suspend its uranium enrichment activities and implement a moratorium on its long range missile and nuclear tests. In return, Washington has committed to sending 240,000 tons of food aid to Pyongyang. But perhaps more importantly, at the insistence of North Korea, the United States included in their statement that “it does not have hostile intent toward the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and is prepared to take steps to improve our bilateral relationship in the spirit of mutual respect for sovereignty and equality.” While this isn’t a security guarantee, it still fulfills Pyongyang’s long standing demand to negotiate under the auspices of co-existence rather than regime change.
Reaction in the U.S. has been described as cautiously optimistic as The Diplomat’s Harry Kazianis noted. Japan has similarly welcomed the North’s pledged moratorium, but has taken a more critical tone than the Obama administration. Japanese Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba stressed that while the gesture is welcome the “goal remains completely the same – we want Pyongyang to suspend all of its nuclear facilities and a complete and verifiable denuclearization of North Korea.” Japan is weary of North Korea’s past deception and hinted that the agreement shouldn’t been seen as a significant breakthrough. Gemba emphasized that “there is no guarantee that North Korea will take concrete action” and warned that the deal wasn’t yet finalized.
The deal was struck during bilateral talks between the United States and North Korea this past week in Beijing, but has been in the works for months. The hope is that the U.S. carrots will be enough to bring the North back to the negotiating table for the stalled Six-Party talks. Ironically, though, this move could backfire as it may convince Pyongyang that it will be more successful at garnering incentives through bilateral discussions with Washington rather than rejoining the multilateral negotiations. This effectively shuts out Japan and South Korea, which is what North Korea has hoped to achieve since the Talks ended in 2008.
Japan’s discussions with the North on the return of its abducted nationals remain a politically charged issue, and there has been no hint at a resumption of those talks, which were cut off after the North’s last nuclear test in 2008. Tokyo is quietly concerned that a narrow bilateral track between Washington and Pyongyang will reduce the chances of the North making progress on this issue.