Thursday, March 1, 2012

US-DPRK leap?

On February 29, 2012, the DPRK and the United States simultaneously announced the results of their third exploratory talks. Both sides chose to focus on different aspects of the negotiations in their announcement, but in general, Pyongyang and Washington appear to have landed on the same page.

The agreements were surprisingly extensive, covering a moratorium on long-range missile launches, cessation of nuclear weapons tests and nuclear activities at Yongbyon and permission for IAEA inspectors to return to North Korea.

In return, the United States promised to finalize negotiations on 240,000 metric tons of nutritional aid. The addition of "nutritional assistance" in the meeting is somewhat surprising because Washington has always maintained rhetorical distance between the nuclear issue and humanitarian assistance - as many analysts suspected, the deal appears to have been reached mainly via US using humanitarian assistance as leverage.

The agreement to provide 240,000 metric tons of nutritional aid is significant because it means that the North Korean leadership was willing to concede on the issue of being given the remaining 330,000 tons of grain from the 2005 agreement. According to Marcus Noland, this concession suggests that there is an individual or group making decisive political decisions in Pyongyang, which in of itself was not a certainty after the death of Kim Jong-il.

While US negotiators were wary of making assertive comments on recommencing the Six-party Talks, the North Korean statement chose to underscore the possibility of restarting the talks, lifting sanctions and acquiring a light water reactor - clearly looking for a deal similar to the 1994 Agreed Framework.

The key area of concern here is the linkage between food aid and the nuclear issue. If this becomes the established precedence, then humanitarian assistance will be shamelessly flaunted as a political tool - and the North Koreans will have a positive incentive to engage in provocative behavior to induce food aid.

Moreover, the linkage between food and the nuclear program will create an incentive for Washington to continue the supply of aid even if the North Koreans are abusing the distribution, as long as the negotiations on the nuclear program makes progress - humanitarian assistance will be taken hostage by North Korea's willingness to talk.

The agreement specified that North Korea will halt nuclear activities at the Yongbyon nuclear facility, which leaves nuclear facilities that the US and the IAEA do not know about (if they exist) free to continue uranium enrichment. In 2010 Siegfried Hecker was shown the uranium enrichment program at Yongbyon and he was shocked to find that the facility was capable of producing a weapon's worth of highly enriched uranium every year. While this infamous facility will halt operations, just as Hecker was not expecting a massive enrichment program in 2010, we may stumble upon an underground nuclear facility in the near future. Furthermore, Pyongyang probably retains enough plutonium right now for four to twelve atomic bombs.

While the recent agreement could definitely open way for a considerable breakthrough, bringing the regional players back to Six-party Talks and forestall mass starvation in North Korea, as with all agreements with Pyongyang, this one stands on thin ice. As the moratorium does not include a specific timetable, Pyongyang may well be stalling for time and aid.

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