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Can North Korea be Trusted?

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Can North Korea be Trusted?

The North Korea deal suggests a gradual shift in policy. But history suggests caution is warranted.

So, North Korea has finally pledged to suspend all nuclear tests, uranium enrichment and long-range missile tests, and to allow for verification and monitoring of their nuclear facilities at Yongbyon by international inspectors for the first time since 2009.

Hailed by some as a “breakthrough,” the agreement followed talks between U.S. and North Korean diplomats in Beijing last month. The U.S., for its part, has called it a “modest first step” towards complete, verifiable and peaceful denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, while cautioning that patience is needed to ensure further headway.

Inevitably, many hope that the end of this diplomatic impasse will reopen the doors to broader negotiations on nuclear disarmament, most likely in the form of the resumption of the Six-Party Talks. However, a closer look at North Korea’s form on this issue suggests a great deal of caution is warranted.

For years, North Korea has engaged in what some reports have termed a cycle of provocation, then accommodation with the United States, South Korea and Japan. Back in 2007, Pyongyang agreed to disable all nuclear facilities in exchange for economic, energy and humanitarian assistance from other states participating in the Six-Party Talks. However, North Korea turned this accommodating stance on its head in September 2008 by ignition-testing a long-range missile, reversing its decision to deactivate its Yongbyon nuclear facilities, and barring International Atomic and Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors from nuclear sites. In April 2009, North Korea continued down this provocative path by launching a Taepodong-2 rocket, prompting unanimous condemnation from the U.N. Security Council. North Korea responded to this by expelling all nuclear inspectors from the country and boycotting the Six-Party Talks.

In May 2009, North Korea conducted its second round of nuclear and long-range missile tests, and the following March it sank the South Korean ship the Cheonan before unveiling its advanced uranium enrichment capability to a delegation of U.S. scientists led by Stanford University’s Siegfried Hecker. Tensions on the peninsula threatened to boil over with the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in November 2010.

In contrast, 2011 was relatively quiet, and a return to a more accommodating stance was observed through a series of exploratory talks between U.S. and North Korean negotiators, aimed at ultimately resuming the Six-Party Talks. However, this process ground to a halt after the passing of Kim Jong-il and the ascent of his son and heir, Kim Jong-un, to leadership.

Given this rollercoaster chronology of events, it’s hardly surprising that the U.S. wasn’t expecting much from the Beijing talks: at the end of the two days of meetings, U.S. diplomats reported that they hadn’t heard anything “substantively or stylistically” new from their North Korean counterparts. U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Policy Glyn Davies even said that the leadership handover hadn’t appeared to change the negotiating team’s stance. North Korea’s surprising agreement to the moratorium therefore raises the question of motive.

Many doubt that North Korea will ever willingly give up its nuclear program, particularly since the demise of Kim Jong-il; North Korea has vowed to maintain his policies, linking the nuclear program to his legacy. Some have therefore attributed North Korea’s acquiescence to the moratorium as a way of earning U.S. trust en route to lessening North Korean reliance on China. In addition, this year marks the centennial of the birth of Eternal President and Founder Kim Il-Sung, and the North Korean government may be hoping that U.S. food aid will ensure popular support.

Although it’s probably premature to assume that the moratorium agreement necessarily paves the way for the resumption of the Six-Party Talks, there’s some evidence that it reflects a gradual change in North Korea’s posture. After all, North Korea’s decision to opt for a dialogue-based diplomacy track rather than escalating tensions at a sensitive time is a significant step on the road to a peace process and increased political engagement with the United States, South Korea and Japan. Furthermore, the moratorium indirectly helps further the global nuclear non-proliferation agenda; North Korea’s assent is a welcome juxtaposition to the IAEA’s highly-publicized recent problems with disclosure and access to Iran’s Parchin nuclear facility.

Still, although this development adds a feather to the cap of U.S.-North Korea diplomacy, and contributes to the management of a potentially destabilizing regional dynamic, further progress hinges upon whether North Korea will fulfill its part of the moratorium bargain. For example, while North Korea’s commitments technically meet the prerequisites for the resumption of the Six-Party Talks and energy assistance, there have been no commitments so far on actually restarting them. The U.S., China, Russia, Japan and South Korea are also yet to reveal what they could offer North Korea in return for its complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization.

On the domestic front, the North Korean Workers’ Party will hold a party conference in mid-April, which will afford Kim Jong-un the opportunity to inherit the top party posts held by his father. The last time the party held a conference of this nature, it was to confer the titles of successor and vice chairman of the party’s Central Military Commission upon Kim Jong-un. At present, Kim Jong-un is supreme commander of the Korean People’s Army, but has yet to assume other major designations, including general secretary of the Workers’ Party and supreme commander of the Party’s Central Military Commission. Some analysts see April as the likely time for him to receive these titles, but it remains to be seen whether this official power transition will see other shifts in North Korea’s foreign and/or nuclear policies.

Speculation aside, one thing is certain: North Korea’s complex nuclear and foreign policy history is cause for cautious optimism at best.

Ong Suan Ee is Senior Research Analyst at the Centre for Multilateralism Studies (CMS), S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.