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North Korea agrees to suspend nuclear activities

The new US envoy on North Korea, Glyn Davies, came through with the agreement in two days of talks in Beijing last week with North Korea’s veteran envoy Kim Kye-gwan, who had requested the meeting.

The US announced a possible watershed agreement with North Korea today under which the US will supply food to North Korea while the North calls a moratorium on nuclear and missile programs and admits inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency.

The new US envoy on North Korea, Glyn Davies, came through with the agreement in two days of talks in Beijing last week with North Korea’s veteran envoy Kim Kye-gwan, who had requested the meeting.

The deal at once raised hopes for genuine reversal of a confrontation that, if anything, had seemed to be worsening in recent days while North Korea fired off rhetorical barrages denouncing annual US-South Korean military exercises that began on Monday.

Analysts, however, are far from certain the agreement will really work, or whether North Korea will abide by all the pledges in the agreement.

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 “It’s worth giving it a try,” says David Straub, former State Department Korea desk officer, but “all the steps are readily reversible.”

Although Mr. Davies reaffirmed the US policy of not tying humanitarian aid to the nuclear issue, the crux of theagreement is that the US will supply 240,000 tons of “nutritional” food aid and North Korea will call a moratorium on its entire nuclear program, including testing of nuclear devices and long-range missiles.

Optimism on hold

Mr. Straub, now associate director of Stanford University‘s Korea program, notes that North Korea could decide to test a long-range missile or conduct a third nuclear test at any time. North Korea hinted at this possibility, says Straub, in its own announcement of the deal in which it states that it will keep its pledges as long as talks are productive.

A major question, says Straub, is the degree to which the rise of a new North Korean “supreme leader,” Kim Jong-un, played into the agreement. Nonetheless, Mr. Kim is believed to have been involved in the agreement regardless of who in the North Korean hierarchy was responsible for it.

 “We don’t know the leadership dynamics,” says Straub. The test will be “whether it’s possible to create a new cycle with the new government.”

The White House also withheld optimism about the deal.

The US still has “profound concerns regarding North Korean behavior across a wide range of areas,” said the official statement, “but today’s announcement reflects important, if limited, progress in addressing some of these.”

North Korea failed to carry out complex agreements to halt its nuclear program reached at six-party talks in 2007. The talks, which had been ongoing since 2005, were last held in Beijing in December 2008.

South Korea’s reaction

South Korea’s conservative president, Lee Myung-bak, has been reluctant to provide aid for North Korea. After his inauguration four years ago, President Lee suspended almost all aid to North Korea, reversing the decade-long Sunshine policy of reconciliation. He demanded North Korea first give up its nuclear program. 

However, the Foreign Ministry said “today’s announcements faithfully reflect the measures developed through close consultation,” including Mr. Lee’s meetings with President Obama.

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The agreement, said the South Korean statement, has “laid the foundation for our efforts toward comprehensive and fundamental resolution of the North Korean nuclear issue to move forward.”  

Reason to believe the North this time?

The fact that North Korea requested the talks is seen as reason to believe that North Korea, for the near future, will want to carry out the deal under which IAEA inspectors will again enter the nuclear complex at Yongbyon

North Korea’s five-megawatt reactor is believed to have produced enough plutonium for up to a dozen warheads, and the North has been building a facility for producing warheads with highly enriched uranium.

North Korea has conducted two underground nuclear tests, in 2006 and 2009, and also test-fired its long-range Taepodong missile in 1998 and in 2009. The UN Security Council imposed severe sanctions on trade with North Korea after the second missile and nuclear tests.

The State Department avoided any sign of lifting sanctions, which it said were not “targeted against the people” of North Korea, but said talks would begin soon on implementing the promise of food aid.

A major consideration is whether the aid will go to those who need it most or will be diverted to the North Korean armed forces as well as government and party officials. The US characterizes the aid as “nutritional,” meaning that it will consist of items needed by mothers and children, not rice rations for soldiers.

“The food aid is badly needed,” says Straub. “There are lots of hungry North Korean children.”

Davies briefed South Korea’s envoy Lim Sung-nam on the agreement in a stopover here last weekend, but the White House and State Department waited until today apparently to make sure South Korea had no objections.