New hope for denuclearization
The Feb. 29 announcements by Washington and Pyongyang that North Korea pledged to a moratorium on uranium enrichment activities at Yongbyon, long-range missile launches, and nuclear tests mark the first significant step forward for President Barak Obama’s administration in more than three years.
The North also accepted the return of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors to verify the moratorium on uranium enrichment activities and to confirm the 2008 disablement of the plutonium facilities.
This development might have been labeled as a U.S.-DPRK agreement in terms of its pragmatic impact on the long saga of denuclearization. Washington may have turned down a North Korean suggestion to call it a “bilateral agreement” in consideration of the other participants of the six-party talks and in the belief that the denuclearization of North Korean is a multilateral issue. Pyongyang still insists its nuclear program is a bilateral issue with Washington.
The freeze on the uranium enrichment program and the return of IAEA inspectors were the two “pre-steps” that Washington and Seoul had insisted that Pyongyang should take as a proof of “sincerity” before the resumption of the six-party talks. Improvement of inter-Korean relations, while critical to a successful six-party process, no longer appears to be a precondition or a pre-step to the reconvening of the multilateral talks.
Apparently, Washington would not consider returning to the six-party talks until after it confirms that Pyongyang has carried out their commitments to halt the UEP and invite the international inspectors back to Yongbyon. The technical aspects of a moratorium on “uranium enrichment activities” were not discussed in the announcements. Yet Pyongyang is expected to soon negotiate with IAEA regarding the scope and method of inspection.
A spokesman of Pyongyang’s foreign ministry said, “It was agreed to discuss lifting of the sanctions and the provision of light water reactors with priority, when the six-party talks resume.” However, it seems that the North has raided these issues, but the U.S. did not agree to such a proposal. The State Department’s spokeswoman said that the North Koreans were several steps ahead of “the step 1 that we are in.”
The moratorium on nuclear tests and missile launches are the easier parts for the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea – the North’s official name) to implement. Pyongyang said in its statement that the moratorium would stay in effect, “for the duration of a period for continued fruitful talks with the U.S.” In the past, North Korea had initiated and maintained a moratorium on missile launches under the same condition until its relations with the Bush administration deteriorated.
The recent bilateral agreement, on the other hand, obliged Washington to provide 240,000 tons of nutritional assistance to North Korea. In the real world, U.S. food assistance is often used as a foreign policy tool, and this is not the first time the U.S. buys North Korea’s cooperation with food. However, the U.S. would not include rice or other grains preferred by the North Koreans lest they should end up in the hands of the (North) Korean People’s Army. The State Department denies that the agreement was “a food-for-nuke deal,” although it should not really matter if it was.
According to a statement put out by the department after the conclusion of the third “exploratory” round of U.S.-DPRK bilateral talks on Feb. 23-24 in Beijing, “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 and for sovereignty and equality.”
This statement addresses Pyongyang’s preoccupation with U.S. hostility as the genesis of the nuclear problem and the fundamental condition to denuclearization. The same point was made in the U.S.-DPRK joint communique of Oct. 12, 2000, stating, “Neither government would have hostile intent toward each other” and both countries “decided to take steps to fundamentally improve their bilateral relationship.”
During the last round of the talks with North Korea, the U.S. also stated that it remains committed to the Sept. 19, 2005, Joint Statement, recognizes the 1953 Armistice Agreement for peace and stability on the peninsula, and is prepared to take steps to increase people-to-people exchanges.
The U.S. and DPRK will meet again in Beijing “immediately” to finalize the administrative and monitoring details for the provision of nutritional assistance. The U.S. would even consider additional food assistance on continued needs.
Unrelated to the U.S.-North Korea talks, another interesting track two meeting will be taking place March 7 to 9 in New York with the participation of prominent civilians and government officials from all six participating countries of the nuclear talks. Organized by the Maxwell School of Syracuse University, the meeting will be attended by DPRK Vice Foreign Minister Ri Young-ho, ROK nuclear envoy Lim Sung-nak, and some U.S. officials.
Although there is no official schedule for Ri to meet with Lim or a U.S. government representative, there is a chance that Ri and Lim may meet and have a substantive talk on denuclearization. If this happens, as it did prior to the two previous U.S.-DPRK talks in July and December 2011, that would help alleviate concerns among South Koreans that they were shunned by the North Koreans and left out of the discussion of the nuclear issue in which their interest is at stake.
Perhaps, it is important to note that the new leader Kim Jong-un has chosen to continue his father’s policy of engaging the U.S. on the nuclear issue, while seeking U.S. food assistance. As long as the North is engaged in dialogue, there is a better chance for stability on the Korean peninsula. What’s your take?
The writer is a visiting research professor at Korea University and a visiting professor at the University of North Korean Studies. He is also an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.