U.S.-DPRK Food/Nuclear Announcement

On February 23–24, the U.S. delegation headed by Ambassador Glyn T. Davies, special representative for North Korea policy, held a third exploratory round of U.S.-DPRK bilateral talks in Beijing with his North Korean counterpart, Kim Kye Gwan. This is the first meeting between the two countries following the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il and the ascension of his youngest son Kim Jong-un in late December 2011. The U.S. State Department announced on February 29 the results of the delegation’s negotiations, which seem to signal a modest diplomatic step forward.

Q1: What did the United States agree to do?

A1: State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said the United States had agreed to meet, in the immediate future, with the DPRK to finalize administrative details necessary to move forward with the proposed package of 240,000 metric tons of nutritional assistance, along with the intensive monitoring required for its delivery. The United States left open the prospect of additional food aid should there be a continued need. The United States further reaffirmed its commitment to the September 19, 2005, Joint Statement and that it does not have hostile intent toward the DPRK.

Q2: What did the DPRK agree to do?

A2: The DPRK agreed to implement a moratorium on long-range missile launches, nuclear tests, and its nuclear activities at Yongbyon, North Korea’s main reactor, including its uranium enrichment activities. The DPRK also agreed to allow the return of inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to verify and monitor the moratorium on uranium enrichment activities at Yongbyon and confirm the disablement of the five-megawatt reactor and any associated facilities. There has been no announcement as to when the moratorium would commence or when IAEA inspectors would be allowed into the country.

Q3: What does this agreement signify?

A3: Practically speaking, the achievement of a nuclear and missile-testing moratorium, as well as the reintroduction of IAEA inspectors into Yongbyon, is a useful step forward. The uranium enrichment program has basically been running unabated now for at least five years, if not longer. Getting eyes on the ground again is a welcome development.

Q4: Didn’t the Obama administration say it would not buy “the same horse for a third time”?

A4: Yes, and this will probably be the political criticism of today’s announcement. But if the choice is between declaring with arms folded that you won’t buy the horse again or trying to cap a runaway nuclear program, the latter may well make sense.

Q5: So is this a good agreement in the end?

A5: Negotiating with North Korea is always about choosing between bad options. The choice is between watching a runaway nuclear program or holding your nose and negotiating with the regime. Obama chose to do the latter.

Q6: What does this agreement mean for the leadership transition in North Korea? Is this a sign that Kim Jong-un is interested in a new relationship with the outside world?

A6: It’s too soon to tell. We know less about this new leader than we knew about Osama bin Laden, Muammar el-Qaddafi, or Saddam Hussein. In one sense, these negotiations predated Kim Jong-il’s death so it remains his decision. We just do not know. We would not bet the decision means that Kim Jong-un is fully comfortable and ensconced as the leader forever.

Q7: Why was this agreement reached?

A7: Tactically, it makes sense for both sides. The Obama administration wants to get a handle on a runaway nuclear program and wants to avoid any DPRK crisis in an election year. A study at CSIS shows that since 1984, the North had not engaged in provocations when it is in the middle of negotiations with the United States (with one exception). For North Korea, it wants to demonstrate a continuity of leadership, and it wants food for the April 15 celebrations.

Q8: Are we headed back to Six-Party Talks?

A8: Not yet. One of the unmet U.S. “pre-steps” for returning to the Six-Party Talks was a commitment by the North to refrain from further provocations like the 2010 Cheonan sinking and island shelling. The North made no such commitments in today’s announcement. Until this precondition is met (and IAEA inspectors are on the ground), we do not think Six-Party Talks are in the cards.

Victor D. Cha is a senior adviser and holds the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). He is also author of the forthcoming book, The Impossible State: North Korea’s Past and Future (Ecco, April 2012). Ellen Kim is associate director and fellow, and Marie DuMond a research associate, in the Office of the Korea Chair at CSIS.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2012 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Victor Cha
Senior Vice President for Asia and Korea Chair

Marie DuMond

Ellen Kim