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The Peninsula

New Boss, Same as the Old Boss in North Korea, But Progress on Nukes

Published February 29, 2012
Category: North Korea

By Nicholas Hamisevicz

We now know that the “modest progress” after the U.S’s first meeting with North Korea after the death of Kim Jong-il actually meant that a deal regarding food aid, missile launches, and nuclear tests would be forthcoming. The statement on U.S.-DPRK discussions released today by the U.S. Department of State entails an understanding that the U.S. will provide nutritional assistance and North Korea will start a moratorium on long-range missile launches and nuclear tests as well as letting IAEA inspectors back to Yongbyon. The initial steps enclosed in the statement provide both North Korea and the U.S. short-term gains that allow each side to continue to move toward better relations and denuclearization talks.

For North Korea, the big gains from this statement are food aid and legitimacy. On top of the food aid it will reportedly receive from China, North Korea will now receive 240,000 metric tons of nutritional assistance from the United States with the potential for more. Both of these donations should help North Korea have some more food for its April celebrations of the 100th anniversary of Kim Il-sung’s birth and help demonstrate the new government led by Kim Jong-un can help provide for its people. Even though the U.S. government insists that it tried to keep food aid separate from other discussions, especially nuclear issues, the linkages are clear and fully interpreted as together by the North Koreans.

Moreover, North Korea will use the statement to illustrate the U.S.’s recognition of the new Kim Jong-un leadership. The first bullet point summarizing the understandings from the meetings in Beijing last week on the U.S. and the DPRK improving relations through “the spirit of mutual respect for sovereignty and equality” provides that need for the North Koreans. In a continual process of consolidating power, Kim Jong-un can use this phrase suggesting the U.S.’s recognition of his leadership to illustrate he is seen by outside powers as the leader in charge of North Korea.

For the U.S., the discussions and statement provide it time and space to move forward on denuclearization efforts. Fears lingered that in an attempt for stability under the new leadership or if the new regime felt threatened, North Korea would launch a long-range missile or test another nuclear device. The moratorium by North Korea will mitigate some of those fears, but doubts will remain on how long North Korea will sustain the suspension. Furthermore, the Obama administration can point to IAEA inspectors being allowed back to Yongbyon as a success and as an indication that it is committed to pursuing the denuclearization of North Korea.

The deal and understanding suggested in the statement also allows more access into North Korea under the new leadership of Kim Jong-un. Even though they are just to clear up “administrative details,” the U.S. and North Korea will continue to meet. Despite Glyn Davies, U.S. Special Representative for North Korea policy, suggesting there was no substantial difference from the North Korean negotiators now that Kim Jong-un has taken over, more meetings will help the U.S. understand any potential changes in future negotiations. IAEA inspectors will be back to Yongbyon, and there is supposed to be “intensive monitoring” of the nutritional assistance.

The statement provides a way forward, but the potential for backsliding is always there. Disagreements between the U.S. and North Korea over nutritional assistance monitoring seemed to hamper earlier attempts at food aid.  With more monitoring, the North Koreans could get nervous and limit access; the U.S. and North Korea have had this history before over food aid. Access will be critical for the IAEA inspectors visiting Yongbyon. They should be allowed to see even more than what was revealed to KEI President Jack Pritchard in November 2010 and shown to Sig Hecker the week following Ambassador Pritchard’s visit.

The potential is there to get the monitors and inspectors into North Korea and have them return with their assessments in time for the U.S. to implement some next steps with North Korea before the final campaigning for the presidential election limits the Obama administration’s ability to maneuver policies toward denuclearization of North Korea. The statement provides some steps for future talks and action, but the details and commitments must be scrutinized and specifically followed. Otherwise, this statement can easily get set aside with numerous other attempts at bridging difficult U.S.-North Korea relations and creating a more peaceful Korean peninsula.

Nicholas Hamisevicz is the Director of Research and Academic Affairs for the Korea Economic Institute. The views represented here are his own.

Photo from IAEA Imagebank’s photo stream on flickr Creative Commons.

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