The Leap Day Deal with North Korea

Cautious Optimism Is Warranted in Washington

Nina Hachigian examines the latest mini-breakthrough with the poor, isolated, and nuclear-armed northeast Asian dictatorship for its possible future consequences.

U.S. Special Representative for North Korean Affairs Glyn Davies gestures as he briefs journalists following a meeting with North Korean First Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye Gwan at a hotel in Beijing, China, last month.<br /> (AP/Alexander F. Yuan)
U.S. Special Representative for North Korean Affairs Glyn Davies gestures as he briefs journalists following a meeting with North Korean First Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye Gwan at a hotel in Beijing, China, last month.
(AP/Alexander F. Yuan)

What are the chances that yesterday’s agreement with the North Koreans will prove to be a real stepping stone to resolving the longstanding international impasse over the Pyongyang nuclear program? Lousy, if the past behavior of North Korea’s family-led authoritarian regime is any indication.

Nevertheless, yesterday’s developments offer modest cause for hope.

The North Koreans and the Americans each issued unilateral statements. In theirs, the North Koreans agreed to a moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile testing. They will also suspend their production of weapons-grade nuclear material. Finally, Pyongyang will allow U.N. inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency back into the country to assess North Korea’s nuclear facility at Yongbyong and to verify the end of enrichment.

If it fulfills these pledges, then North Korea will be taking the "pre-steps" necessary before the next round of the so-called six-party talks can begin. The on-again, off-again six-party talks include the United States, South Korea, Japan, Russia, China, and North Korea, and are aimed at addressing the threat of North Korea’s nuclear program.

To that end, the United States yesterday reaffirmed "that it does not have hostile intent” toward the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea—the official name of the North Korean regime—and is “prepared to take steps to improve our bilateral relationship in the spirit of mutual respect for sovereignty and equality." Separately but related, the United States will send a very significant amount of food aid to North Korea, which Pyongyang applied for a year ago but which was held up when the late strongman Kim Jong Il died late last year. The food aid will take the form of "nutritional assistance,” meaning foodstuffs targeted to malnourished children and pregnant women, which is less likely to be diverted to the North Korean elite and its million-man army than is rice.

Several of these developments provide reasons for cautious optimism. First, North Korea has agreed to allow the inspection of its uranium enrichment program at Yongbyong. This is significant because the country has previously sought to conceal this program, while owning up to its plutonium program. In fact, it was North Korea’s admission that they had a secret uranium program that caused the George W. Bush administration to break off talks back in 2002, setting off a series of escalating events that ended with North Korea throwing out U.N. nuclear inspectors and developing a nuclear weapon.

Second, Pyongyang agreed to the close monitoring of food distribution by international aid agencies. This will ensure, along with the choice of food, that the starving North Koreans who are truly in need will get this assistance, rather than the military. Obama administration officials are quick to point out that there is no "trade" involved here—there are no pre-conditions for the delivery of food to chronically hungry children except that there has to be closer management than in years past to ensure the aid gets where it is most needed.

Third, this agreement shows that the new leader of the Kim dynasty in Pyongyang, Kim Jong Un, and the regime he inherited from his father and grandfather, is maintaining some consistency in its dealings with the outside world. Wherever power now lies in North Korea, the same negotiators and similar dynamics defined this most recent deal between Washington and Pyongyang. In theory, the young Kim could have chosen to cut off talks altogether or to try a more confrontational approach.

Fourth, China continues to be closely involved. In years past Beijing’s actions have ranged considerably from very helpful to counterproductive when it comes to North Korea’s nuclear program. This time China appeared to be somewhat on the same page as the United States. The other four members of the six-party talks seem to be reading from the same script, too.

Finally, this agreement is a sign that Glyn Davies, the new U.S. envoy to North Korea is indeed as talented, professional, and persistent as he is known to be (and as he was when we worked together on former President Bill Clinton’s National Security Council). If he got this far this fast, perhaps he and his team can get farther still.

U.S. officials are not holding their breath, and neither should any of us. These are mere pledges to take pre-steps. North Korea is not even at the front door of negotiations yet. As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, "The United States still has profound concerns."

But a step forward is a still step forward. And who would have guessed two years ago that Libya and Burma would undergo the transformations they have? There is hope even for the most isolated nation on earth.

Nina Hachigian is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.

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Nina Hachigian

Senior Fellow