When Glyn Davies, the the U.S. special representative for North Korean policy, left Beijing last week after two days of talks with North Korean envoys, he would only say their discussions produced “a little bit of progress” but refused to call it a breakthrough. Today we can see what he meant. The U.S. State Department announced that North Korea has agreed to implement a moratorium on long-range missile launches, nuclear tests and nuclear activities, including uranium enrichment, at its Yongbyon reactor. It will also allow the return of IAEA inspectors to verify the moratorium at Yongbyon. Under the deal the U.S. would provide 240,000 metric tons of food, with the possibility of more later. “The United States still has profound concerns regarding North Korean behavior across a wide range of areas, but today’s announcement reflects important, if limited, progress in addressing some of these,” said State Department Spokesperson Victoria Nuland. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the announcement “a modest first step in the right direction,” adding that the U.S. “will be watching closely and judging North Korea’s new leaders by their actions.”
Efforts at convincing North Korea to dismantle its nuclear arsenal have haltered in recent years. Pyongyang pulled out of six-nation talks in 2009 following condemnation of its test of a long-rang missile. It conducted its second nuclear test weeks later. In 2010 it sunk a South Korean Navy corvette, killing 46 sailors, and shelled a South Korean island, killing two soldiers and two civilians. Last December U.S. and North Korea were reportedly close to reaching an arrangement similar to that announced today. Then North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il died on December 17, throwing not only those negotiations but North Korea’s leadership succession into question. Kim’s youngest son, Kim Jong Un, took up his father’s role, and the speed with which North Korea has returned to talks suggests that the 29-year-old leader feels secure of his position.
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His willingness to continue discussions with the U.S. offers hope of an eventual return to six-party talks on ending North Korea’s nuclear program. Those on-and-off between the U.S., North and South Korea, Japan, Russia and China were launched in 2003, and China, the host, has been pushing for a return to the bargaining table. But it is premature to expect that today’s announcement is enough to rejuvenate those negotiations. “While an important confidence-building measure, this development still reflects only limited progress, and not enough to predict the resumption” of the talks, says Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt, China and North East Asia project director for the International Crisis Group. And the arrangement could offer wiggle room for North Korea to conduct nuclear activities elsewhere. “It’s important to note that according to the statement the nuclear moratorium applies only to Yongbyon,” Kleine-Ahlbrandt says.
As with past developments on North Korea the potential for broken deals and regression remains ever present. But just two months ago the outside world was uncertain whether Kim Jong Un would be able to succeed his father. A deal with U.S. is a positive sign that the son is willing to talk. Now the world needs to know if he’s willing to uphold a bargain.
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