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.
The other major U.S. concession was largely symbolic: The administration said that it was “prepared to take steps to increase people-to-people exchanges, including in the areas of culture, education, and sports.” North Korea is eager to break out of its international isolation and deepen ties with the United States in particular, which helps reduce Pyongyang’s dependence on Moscow and especially Beijing.
As always, assessing North Korean motives is challenging, but it’s likely that the regime has sought several objectives related to ensuring its survival. First, the deal helps establish a non-threatening external environment during which North Korean leaders can consolidate the controversial process of transferring power to the young and inexperienced Kim Jong-un. The United States and other governments will now stand aside for some months as they await implementation of the Leap Day deal.
Second, the food aid will help address a major and embarrassing humanitarian crisis in which as much as a third of the North Korean population of 24 million is undernourished, and this despite the 100th anniversary year, which was supposed to mark North Korea’s transformation into a “prosperous nation.” North Korean diplomats in New York originally requested 320,000 metric tons of grains in return for suspending its clandestine uranium-enrichment program, but the administration correctly insisted on providing “nutrients,” not grains or rice since these could easily be diverted to feeding the North Korean army.
It’s also inevitable, though, that this deal will prompt speculation about the status of the North Korean leadership succession. Kim Jong-un has said little in public, and the comments attributable to him by the North Korean media are often worrisome, such as his reported threats against South Korea. But Kim Jong-un presumably had to have agreed to the recent deal for it to have occurred, as must have the military. The joint editorial of the party and army newspapers published on January 1 vowed to continue the “military-first policy” of Kim Jong-il. And, in general, the current leadership has carried on the same policies as it did under Kim Jong-il.
So what comes next? Several U.S. statements confirmed that the United States planned to continue the “action for action” transactional process and consider offering North Korea additional rewards, such as removing some sanctions, in return for further progress. For example, in Washington’s understanding of the deal, “The United States reaffirms that it does not have hostile intent toward the DPRK and is prepared to take steps to improve our bilateral relationship in the spirit of mutual respect for sovereignty and equality.” In addition, Washington has affirmed that “U.S. sanctions against the DPRK are not targeted against the livelihood of the DPRK people.”
But the ball really is in Pyongyang’s court since the onus is on the North Koreans to negotiate the return of the nuclear inspectors with the IAEA and ensure that the food is delivered with the agreed monitoring and other safeguards. U.S. officials have said they want to see North Korea implement this recent deal before agreeing to any new ones. Meanwhile, they will engage in detailed discussions with the other members of the Six-Party regarding possible future steps forward.
It goes without saying that we are a long way from the verifiable and irreversible elimination of the North Korean nuclear program. And there are already indications of the potential problems ahead that could derail the recent progress.
For example, there’s no mention of a North Korean commitment to improving intra-Korean relations. The State Department has said that the issue was discussed as part of the dialogue, but it’s also a tenet of formal U.S. policy, and a probable requirement for a successful resumption of the Six-Party Talks, that Seoul and Pyongyang make progress in overcoming their differences. Yet North Korea has kept up its belligerent attack on the South Korean government of President Lee Myung-bak and his “anti-national, traitorous gang.” For its part, the Lee government hasn’t formally withdrawn an earlier demand that North Korea apologize for its 2010 provocations. Realistically though, major progress might not occur until after the South Korean elections this year since North Korea is presumably waiting to see the outcome.
Another difficulty is that ambiguous wording doesn’t ensure that North Korea will allow IAEA monitoring of any nuclear activities outside Yongbyon. This is especially problematic in the case of the uranium enrichment program, which is thought to take place in at least several additional locations. In December 2010, U.S. State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said that the considerable progress displayed at Yongbyon implied the existence of other uranium enrichment sites. “We're very conscious of the fact that, in the recent revelations to American delegations, what they saw did not come out of thin air,” he said. “It certainly reflects work being done at least one other site.”
There’s also the problem that North Korea might have exaggerated expectations of how much Washington and its allies will concede for the deal. For example, North Korean representatives denounced this week’s start of U.S.-South Korean military drills for undermining the positive atmosphere achieved by the recent deal, as if they expected them to be cancelled or postponed at the last minute in return for modest concessions.
In addition, North Korea’s statement on its interpretation of the recent deal makes it evident that Pyongyang still expects the U.S. and its allies to honor an earlier pledge and provide North Korea with nuclear reactors to replace its closed facilities: “Once the Six-Party talks are resumed, priority will be given to the discussion of issues concerning the lifting of sanctions on the DPRK and provision of light water reactors.” But a lot of water has passed under the bridge since that offer was made a few years ago that will make it harder for the United States to fund such an acquisition.
And there’s one more factor at play. North Korea will no doubt have been closely watching recent events in Libya and the rest of the Arab world, in which local groups have overthrown their authoritarian regimes, sometimes with foreign assistance. It’s therefore hard not to believe that such developments won’t have increased North Korea’s reluctance to ever give up its nuclear weapons. After all, the media is full of talk about possible air strikes against Iran, which doesn’t have nuclear weapons – an option not even on the table for nuclear-armed North Korea.