No hype over nuke deal with NK, cautiousness prevails
WASHINGTON (Yonhap) -- A fresh nuclear deal between North Korea and the United States came with little of the hype that was typical under the Bush administration.
Of course, it's significant that Pyongyang has agreed to freeze its uranium-enrichment activities at its main nuclear complex in Yongbyon and put a moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile tests.
Such a deal between the two sides is the first in four years and the first under the Obama administration and the North's new leadership.
U.S. officials, however, refused to "oversell" the diplomatic achievement, which came in return for a promise to provide 240,000 tons of food for the North, whose 24-million people suffer chronic hunger.
"Today's announcement represents a modest first step in the right direction," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said at a congressional hearing.
A senior State Department official also told reporters, "Now, finally, kind of a note of caution about all this stuff, because I really don't want to oversell this."
He said some positive steps agreed upon by the North would "merely unlock the door to the resumption eventually of six-party talks," a longer-term goal.
Under the deal, the North will consult with the U.N. nuclear watchdog IAEA for the return of inspectors to Yongbyon, north of Pyongyang. The North will have separate talks with the U.S. to iron out the details of the resumption of food aid, which would exclude rice and grain.
With the agreement, a fruit of two days of direct talks in Beijing last week, both sides gained what they wanted in the nascent dialogue phase.
Washington bought some time to prevent Pyongyang from taking provocative steps, with President Barack Obama seeking re-election this year. The North obtained food to help convince its people that young new leader Kim Jong-un is as good as his late father in winning bread from the outside world.
Washington's new negotiating team, led by Glyn Davies and Clifford Hart, may also gain some confidence and credit in line with the so-called "management strategy."
But many point out the devil is in the details and it is just the beginning of a long process. The North has a track record of reneging on deals with the U.S. and putting its nuclear facilities back into operation.
"The regime gets paid again for a promise it already made in 2005. Also, Pyongyang gets an immediate, tangible benefit in food aid while making a temporary concession that can be withdrawn at any time," Denny Roy, senor fellow at the East-West Center said. "Although Washington is 'paying for the same horse' yet again, America gets a lull in North Korean provocations and weapons progress for the relatively cheap price of food aid."
The U.S. admits that "tough negotiations" lie ahead for deciding the sequencing of the measures as witnessed before.
It looks difficult for the Obama administration to avoid criticism that it used food as a diplomatic card again to draw political concessions, despite its claim that food aid is a pure humanitarian matter.
Hardline U.S. lawmakers labeled the agreement as a failure similar to those in the past.
“This agreement blurs the separation of humanitarian aid from nuclear negotiations. The North Korean regime will view our food deliveries as payment for its return to the bargaining table, which has led to nothing in the past," Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement.
Experts here also were cautious about next steps.
"These steps are modestly significant. They are only what negotiators call 'confidence-building measures.' They could indeed be an initial step on a path towards serious negotiations, negotiations that Pyongyang scuttled by its own actions. Or they could simply be a ploy to get nutritional assistance and meddle in South Korean politics," said Richard Bush, a senior researcher at the Brookings Institution. "North Korea's record suggests the latter, but we shall see. No one is holding their breath."
Another prominent Korea watcher, Michael Green, said the North's stance remains unpredictable.
"This is a good development tactically and a credit to Glyn Davies and Ford Hart, but it may still only be a tactical move by the DPRK to garner advantage before shifting to a hard line later this year," he said.
He worked as special assistant to President George W. Bush for national security affairs and senior director for Asian affairs at the National Security Council from 2004 to 2005.