Monday, March 19, 2012

Why we must go on... even with Pyongyang

The hard-won deal with North Korea is already in peril - Pyongyang has announced its intentions to launch a satellite to commemorate Kim Il Sung's centennial and the US sees this as a violation of the moratorium on missile testing. Nonetheless, the negotiations must go on because the opportunity is ripe to set Northeast Asia on a course for greater stability.

Evaluating the merit of the recent food-for-nukes deal has divided analysts.

In a Washington Post op-ed on March 8, Andrew Natsios censured the "Leap-day Deal" for sending a message that encourages Pyongyang to build more nukes and divert aid with impunity. Chris Nelson criticized Natsios' positions but failed to produce a defense for the deal itself.

I am in favor of the deal and here are reasons why:

The moratorium on activities at the Yongbyon nuclear facility is a great start and if the US stays in the agreement, there will be follow-up negotiations. Some analysts were critical of the fact that the deal narrowly specified the Yongbyon facility when there are probably other underground nuclear facilities. But we cannot monitor facilities that we do not know about, thus a more expansive agreement would have simply acted as a harbinger for future conflict.

Based on accounts of high-profile defectors from North Korea, it is likely that Pyongyang is actually concerned for the wellbeing of the North Korean people (in so far as not wanting them to all die) - this will bring North Korea back to the negotiating table because Washington's nutritional assistance package of 240,000 tons will not be sufficient to ensure food security through the lean months between harvests. When negotiations restart, there is room to expand upon the standing agreement.

Monitoring, which State Department officials and many analysts mention on a regular basis as a key obstacle to providing food aid, has never been a big problem - not because Pyongyang doesn't siphon off the aid that comes in the country, but because having surplus food in the market will have a positive outcome. As Chris Green assessed in his recent article on Sino-NK:
This is one oft-unspoken fact that muddies the waters of the 'aid transparency debate'; namely, that giving grain to the North Korean state ends up diluting prices in the [markets], something that is good for ordinary consumers
More importantly, it is in the moral and strategic interests of the United States to help build a North Korea that is not suffering from chronic malnutrition. The long term social consequences of exposure to starvation will prevent the North Korean people from engaging in activities that contribute to social change or effectively participate in reconstruction if the country opens up to the world. If this occurs, then the cost of reconstruction falls on South Korea and invariably the United States. Therefore, Washington should begin investing in the future that it wants to see today.

Negotiations must not only go on, but pick up the pace. As North Korea's economic and political ties with China and the Russian Federation deepen, Washington's economic importance to Pyongyang will diminish. More importantly, should Washington leave North Korea without means to better secure and distribute food, the consequences will yield an immense human cost that will continue to undermine the region's stability long into the future.

Read my full article on Asia Times

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