Posts Tagged ‘us north korea’
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.
US and North Korean officials completed negotiations in Beijing on Friday, ending their third meeting in the last eight months and the first since the death last December of former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, who was succeeded by his son Kim Jong-Un.
Any progress? Here’s Glyn Davies, the US special representative for North Korea policy:
I think the word ‘breakthrough’ goes too far, folks. I wouldn’t want anybody using the word ‘breakthrough’…The talks were serious and substantive…I think we made a little bit of progress…We have been able to illuminate the issues a little bit better, gain a better understanding of their point of view, their rationale and their position.
So, incremental progress in terms of sitting down and talking about key issues, but no real breakthroughs. There were reportedly some discussions on resuming food aid to Pyongyang, which was something that was discussed as part of a deal closed to being forged between the two sides before elder Kim’s death. Apparently the sticking points are still largely what they were before: monitoring of food-aid distribution and the type of aid provided. For instance, the US has placed a greater focus on providing vitamin supplements and high-protein biscuits for malnourished people, but Pyongyang wants food aid to contain more rice and other grains, which Washington is more reluctant to do since it is routinely siphoned off to the regime’s loyal backers in the cities. The New York Times also notes that “both sides had almost reached the goal of suspension of activities at the uranium enrichment plant but narrowly failed to bridge differences”.
Movement on the food aid question could be a critical first step in tackling the relationship’s tougher issues such as North Korea’s nuclear program. The idea would be to get some progress on the disarmament question from Pyongyang to then restart the six-party talks guided by an aid-for-denuclearization agreement reached in September 2005.
What about the near future? North Korea will have to show concrete steps toward suspending its nuclear program before six-party talks can resume. Former special representative to North Korea and my dean Stephen Bosworth thinks that while there is a possibility of talks resuming sometime this year, the fact that we are (believe it or not) seeing either elections or transitions in all members of the six party talks in 2012 – the US, Russia, Japan, South Korea, China and North Korea – means that various parties may not take the necessary strategic risk necessary to make talks productive. Here’s Bosworth:
I think that there is a good possibility that we may see a resumption of talks sometime in 2012. But I certainly wouldn’t bet on it….I think it’s unlikely – but not impossible – that the North Koreans are going to be prepared to take the sort of strategic risk that they would have to take in order to make talks with us productive. Neither do I think that it’s likely in an election year that we’re going to take the sort of public relations and strategic risk that would be required if we are going to make the talks productive. So I hope that we can do more than just manage to maintain stability over the current year, but I’m not all that optimistic.
But as with anything related to North Korea (and I’m sure Dean Bosworth would agree) the future is anyone’s guess.