According to the State Department yesterday, North Korea agreed to suspend its uranium enrichment program, nuclear weapons tests and long-range missile launches in return for 240,000 metric tons of food aid from the United States. That represents the first major diplomatic breakthrough between Washington and Pyongyang since 2007.
For those who are excited about potential change in North Korean behavior, it is worth noting that US officials were in fact close to announcing a similar deal before Kim Jong-Il’s death last year, as I’ve previously noted. They were also nearing some sort of agreement after talks late last week in Beijing. So the moratorium should be read more as an evidence of continuity rather than change: a signal that that the new leader Kim Jong-Un is willing to continue the policies of his father at least for now since Pyongyang needs food aid and a peaceful environment for its transition. In fact, the main negotiators on the North Korean side are the same ones that have been at the table for decades. This is what former special envoy to North Korea (and my dean) Stephen Bosworth had to say:
This is what we had been trying to do for the last year…It’s a sign that the North Koreans want to have continuity. … It’s important to keep in mind that this is not one individual acting and that they’ve done this for their own reasons. First, they need the food aid, and I think they probably want a relatively quiet political environment to carry on the transition.
Those hoping for change would also do well to look at the historical record, which is hardly encouraging. North Korea is infamous for reneging on previous promises and pocketing concessions – most famously under the Agreed Framework in the Clinton administration but also several times under the six-party talks during the Bush administration. In fact, experts are all too familiar with the pattern of North Korean behavior: a provocative act followed by a conciliatory gesture that triggers a rush to either aid or negotiations, with the former often lining the pockets of the regime and the latter being subsequently disrupted by a transgression or tantrum of some sort.
At the same time, simply dismissing North Korean overtures offhand now just because of actions in the past doesn’t make much sense when there are few better options that exist. This is particularly true since there may be a chance that North Korea’s new leadership will institute incremental changes that gradually open up the country. That premise may seem farfetched to some, but it may be worth paying a small price to test it. As Victor Cha, the top advisor to the Bush administration on North Korea said:
On one hand, you could say with the food aid that they’re buying the same horse for the third time… On the other hand, it means getting a handle on what has been a runaway nuclear program that’s continued unabated for more than three years. For that, a bit of food isn’t that high of a price.
The wise policy option given this delicate balance is to react cautiously to the announcement, play down expectations, and wait. The Obama administration has done a good job of this so far. As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton put it in her congressional testimony on Wednesday:
On the occasion of Kim Jong Il’s death, I said that it is our hope that the new leadership will choose to guide their nation onto the path of peace by living up to its obligations. Today’s announcement represents a modest first step in the right direction. We, of course, will be watching closely and judging North Korea’s new leaders by their actions.
If North Korea reverts back to its previous brinkmanship, then US policy can always shift back to one of pure containment – cutting off access to financing, preventing proliferation and so on. Such flexibility is important because, as Bosworth likes to say, while Americans are used to thinking about problems as things that must be solved, North Korea is one problem that may need to be managed for some time to come.