North Korea nuclear moratorium: Will it last?

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the US “still has profound concerns” about the North Korea nuclear moratorium, even as it considers the agreement “a step in the right direction.”

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton calls North Korea's agreement to suspend nuclear activities and accept a moratorium on testing "a modest step" in the right direction, as she testified on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, before the House State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs subcommittee.

North Korea’s surprise agreement to suspend uranium enrichment and missile testing in exchange for US food aid relieves tensions in one of the world’s toughest security crises.

But officials and experts are cautioning that some easily reversible concessions, no matter how extensive, do not necessarily a lasting deal make – especially when it comes to North Korea.

The steps announced by the North Korean government and the State Department Wednesday “could indeed be an initial step on a path towards serious negotiations ... or they could simply be a ploy to get nutritional assistance and meddle in South Korean politics,” says Richard Bush, director of the Brookings Institution’s Center on North East Asia Policy Studies in Washington. “North Korea’s record suggests the latter.”

Commenting on the agreement at a House Appropriations Committee hearing Wednesday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the US “still has profound concerns” even as it considers the agreed measures “a step in the right direction.”

The US will watch and judge the North Korean leadership by its actions, she added.

The steps announced Wednesday were the result of two days of US-North Korea talks in Beijing last week. US officials initially played down expectations of progress, but now say it was the US offer to resume humanitarian aid – specifically food shipments – that appears to have swayed Pyongyang.

The State Department says the US, under the agreement, will proceed with delivery of 240,000 metric tons of food assistance, with more possible if the need in the chronically underfed nation persists.

For its part, the North agreed to once again allow inspectors from the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, to monitor activity at its Yongbyon nuclear complex and verify that it is honoring the enrichment moratorium.

The US and North Korea statements did not say when IAEA inspections would begin.

The agreement also calls for resumption of the long-stalled six-party talks – involving the two Koreas, the US, China, Russia, and Japan – but the announcements gave no date for a new round of negotiations.

And even as positive as a return to talks would be – to start with, it would suggest a reduction in North Korea-South Korea tensions from a level that in 2010 threatened an outbreak of war – many analysts say just talks for talks’ sake won’t be enough.

Noting that with North Korea “the devil is always in the details,” the Heritage Foundation’s North Asia expert Bruce Klingner says that “resumption of six-party talks would not be a victory in itself but instead simply the beginning of long, arduous negotiations – the diplomatic equivalent of putting two weary boxers back in the ring in round two of a 15-round bout.”

Mr. Klingner calls Pyongyang’s agreement to a verifiable enrichment moratorium “a major reversal by the regime” and especially surprising in that it comes just two months after the death of leader Kim Jong-il and his replacement by his youngest son, Kim Jong-un.

But some experts say Kim Jong-un may be following through on momentum for improved Washington-Pyongyang relations that kicked modestly into gear in the last moths of his father’s life.

Noting that low-level talks held last summer and fall, while Kim Jong-il was still in power, “built a momentum that carried forward,” Notre Dame University international relations specialist George Lopez says the steps announced Wednesday suggest “we have turned a new page with the North Koreans.”

Professor Lopez, an expert on the North Korean regime and a former UN adviser, says the US steps reaffirming the Korean war armistice and declaring it has no hostile intentions towards the North could be crucial in negotiating a full denuclearization by the North.

Ending the North’s nuclear program is the aim of the six-party talks, even though the North has repeatedly declared it would never give up its nuclear weapons.

On the other hand, Lopez says the absence from Wednesday’s announcement of any signs of reconciliation between Pyongyang and Seoul – South Korea is still looking for some form of apology from the North for the hostilities of 2009 and 2010 that killed South Korean military personnel and some civilians – means the US still has work to do to fully reengage the South in upcoming negotiations.

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