All things considered, the deal announced on February 29 between the United States and North Korea looks like a helpful contribution to resuming the stalled nuclear and other negotiations involving these and other countries. The sides made some progress on disputed issues, and will receive other benefits ancillary to the formal deal. But these achievements are still fragile and can easily be reversed, as they have in the past. Indeed, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was right to refer to the deal as “a modest first step in the right direction.”
The deal had been under discussion for months, but its announcement was sudden. Since July 2011, North Korean and U.S. officials have been informally discussing in Beijing, New York, and probably elsewhere how to resume direct negotiations. These “talks about talks” centered on what “pre-steps” Pyongyang would take to reverse the damage inflicted by its provocative actions in 2009 and 2010, including the detonating of another nuclear explosive device, testing another long-range missile, and attacking South Korean military and civilian targets.
The two earlier rounds of exploratory talks held in July and October of last year set the stage for the deal announced this week. A third round had been scheduled for last December, but the sudden death of Kim Jong-il resulted in their postponement. At the end of the third session in Beijing last week, the U.S. negotiators gave no indication they expected a sudden breakthrough. North Korea is still in a formal 100-day period of mourning regarding the death of Kim Jong-il. In fact, until now, the most important indicator of progress was a deal in which the two sides agreed to resume the search for the remains of an estimated 5,500 American servicemen missing from the 1950-53 Korean War. Then they suddenly heard from Pyongyang that it had agreed to the deal.
On the surface, North Korea has made some important concessions. Its agreeing to suspend the launching of long-range missiles or testing nuclear explosive devices simply confirms the existing de facto moratorium, and it can easily resume these tests whatever it has said or done in the past. However, the offer to suspend nuclear activities at its major nuclear complex at Yongbyon and invite inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency, absent from North Korea since 2009, to return is important since it reverses some recent setbacks.
But the most important indicator of progress is that now the monitors will be able to assess North Korea’s uranium enrichment activities, at least at that facility. U.S. and South Korean officials expressed surprise at the scale and modernity of the plant, which is equipped with at least 1,000 centrifuges, after a delegation of visiting U.S. scientists was unexpectedly allowed to see it in November 2010. This is a significant development since the outside world knows little about this possible alternative North Korean path to making nuclear weapons. Current intelligence estimates are that the country has made enough separated plutonium to manufacture about a half-dozen nuclear bombs, but North Korea’s large uranium enrichment potential casts doubt on previous these calculations.
More generally, simply restarting a formal dialogue between North Korea and the United States and restoring an IAEA presence in the country is helpful – the current stalemate is, after all, inherently unstable. North Korea could at any time resume testing its nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles. Together, these capabilities could render the continental United States newly vulnerable to a direct North Korean nuclear attack. U.S. officials must therefore strive to avoid a mutual deterrent relationship between an aggressive and unpredictable North Korean regime and the United States.
In return for these concessions, the United States will provide North Korea with 240,000 metric tons of food, through regular monthly deliveries of about 20,000 tons of nutritional supplements under intensive monitoring to ensure it is properly delivered to babies, expectant and young mothers, elderly people, and other North Koreans most at risk of chronic malnutrition. U.S. officials have said that the monitoring will be even more rigorous than under a U.S. program a few years ago that worked well before North Korean authorities abruptly terminated it. This immediate U.S. quid pro quo seems modest and arguably worth doing in any case.
Sadly, as with many policy questions regarding North Korea, there are no good options regarding the food aid question. U.S. aid groups have attacked the Obama administration’s lengthy deliberations in deciding whether to provide large-scale deliveries of food aid to North Korea. U.S. officials indicated they were open to providing some food aid, but only with credible North Korean guarantees that it won’t divert the shipments to feed the country’s elite, the North Korean military, to sell abroad, or to release at the planned mass celebrations marking the 100th year anniversary of the birth of Kim il-sung, the founder of North Korea (and the Kim dynasty). Experts and moralists may debate the relative merits of North Korea’s request for the food assistance, but the promised deliveries have helped establish the conditions needed to resume a painful but necessary dialogue with the North Korean regime regarding its proper international behavior.