Saturday, March 10, 2012

A New Hope?

As the follow-up negotiations to finalize the nutritional assistance to North Korea is taking place, several analysts have weighed in their opinions on the "Leap-day deal." Most people have taken a negative position, citing the agreement's narrow focus on the Yongbyon facility and the questionable act of using humanitarian assistance for leverage.

However, it is important to point out that the recent negotiations have produced opportunities for long-term engagement and a chance to reduce tensions in the region.

At the least, the infamous Yongbyon facility will be closed. Many point out that North Korea probably has many other underground facilities that support the nuclear weapons program, but Yongbyon is probably Pyongyang's largest and most productive enrichment site. With enough output to produce a nuclear weapon on an annual basis, closing down the facility will be a huge step forward. 

Furthermore, now that the food crisis and the nuclear issue are linked, Pyongyang will be pressed hard to make further concessions in their nuclear program in order to gain more food. Although some experts, like Marcus Noland, do not believe that Pyongyang accepted the US deal out of concern for its people, considering the socio-economic conditions, it is likely that North Korea's sudden change in position is tied to its desperation for assistance. 240,000 tons of nutritional assistance will only last so long. When the North Koreans come back for more food, more concessions may be negotiated.

These are issues that both North Koreans and Americans can potentially work together to resolve - Washington wants Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons and Pyongyang wants Washington to help it recover from the food crisis. Andrei Lankov is adamant that North Korea will never give up nuclear weapons, but as long as talks move in a direction that would reduce tensions and establish a firmer line of communication between Pyongyang and Washington, the current negotiations are well worth the moral and strategic risks.

Of course Washington is on a limited time frame. As North Korea's ties with Russia and China deepen, the US economic leverage over the isolated and hungry state will decrease. More importantly, the US should not delay the delivery of humanitarian assistance as to prevent further trauma on the North Korean people. Much is at stake.

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