Some commentators have considered the recent announcement by North Korea of its intention to suspend nuclear program in exchange for U.S. food aid as significant development that may help reduce tension in world’s highly militarized and densely populated region. This agreement, though dubbed as” important, but limited progress” has been accomplished at a time when uncertainty lingers concerning leadership skills of Kim Jong-un , who has succeeded his late father Kim Jong-il last December.
As explained by the spokesperson of the U.S. State Department, Victoria Nuland on the outcome of U.S.-DPRK Bilateral Discussions of February 29, 2012 North Korea has agreed to implement a moratorium on long-range missile launches, nuclear tests and nuclear activities at Yongbyon, including uranium enrichment activities. In pursuance of this North Korea has also agreed to the return of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors to verify and monitor the moratorium on uranium enrichment activities at Yongbyon and confirm the disablement of the 5-MW reactor and associated facilities. Reciprocating to this denuclearization move of North Korea the Obama administration has decided to offer a package of 240,000 metric tons of nutritional assistance to the impoverished country.
A short background leading to February 29 deal reveals that both the U.S. and North Korea were willing to come to an agreement that could result in addressing some concerns about their bilateral relationship. February 23-24 meeting between the two parties in Beijing has made it clear that the U.S. does not have any hostile intentions towards North Korea. The Obama administration in continuation of its previous policy has reaffirmed the Joint Statement of September 19, 2005 which has duly emphasized North Korea’s denuclearization commitments. The deal also stresses that the 1953 Armistice Agreement, which halted the Korean War (1950-53), remains as a cornerstone of peace and stability in the Korean peninsula. More importantly, the U.S. sanctions are not targeted against the livelihood of the people of North Korea.
Scott A. Snyder, an expert on Korean studies, believes that the above agreement will reduce risk that tensions may spin out of control during a period of domestic political uncertainty in both countries. North Korea is still in leadership transition phase as the new regime is only months-old. In the U.S. presidential election is slated for November this year.
Additionally but more significantly, implementation of this agreement may pave way for resuming Six-Party Talks, which envision eventual normalization of U.S.-North Korea relations in return for latter’s abandonment of nuclear program. However, there is pessimism in some quarters that such talks involving six countries (U.S., Russia, Japan, China, and two Koreas) will be able to achieve the goals of North Korea’s denuclearization in exchange for U.S. diplomatic normalization.
Whether resumption of Six-Party Talks will be realized soon is uncertain seen from the U.S. administration’s prism which insists that stabilization of inter-Korean relations is a pre-requisite for such disarmament discussion. Interestingly, the two statements issued from the U.S. and North Korea after the initialing of food agreement differ on this particular point. While the Korean statement refers to such talks, there is no mention of it in the State Department statement.
Therefore, in some quarters in the U.S. skepticism prevails casting a doubt on intentions of Kim Jong-un’s regime for sincerely implementing the denuclearizing commitments. Those who adhere to such suspicion remind that North Korea’s vituperative rhetoric towards South Korea has not stopped nor it has expressed any apology for the provocations caused in 2010.
Furthermore, some analysts have opined that U.S.-North Korea agreement is limited in two respects. A monitored shutdown enrichment facility at Yongbyon does not preclude the likelihood that North Korea may pursue uranium enrichment at other facilities in the country. Even if the Six-Party Talks take place in coming months, almost all the participants face political transitions during the remainder of 2012, making it unlikely that the talks will make significant progress this year.
Regarding the perceived outcomes of above talks, former U.S. Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger holds different opinion, which he has expressed through a commentary carried by the Washington Post on June 8, 2009. According to him North Korean leaders have concluded that no degree of political recognition could compensate them for abandoning the achievement of the role of nuclear weapons, for which they have obliged their population to unprecedented oppression. He further elaborates that they may well calculate that weathering a period of international protest is their ticket to emerging as a de facto nuclear power. In a more blunt tone Kissinger argues any policy that does not eliminate North Korea’s nuclear military capabilities in effect acquiesces in its continuation.
Similar doubt on North Korea’s willingness to suspend its nuclear enrichment activities has been expressed by journalist Max Fisher through his recent article ‘Don’t Worry, North Korea’s Nuclear Program Will Be Back Soon Enough” published by The Atlantic. Citing North Korean leaders’ walking out of the disarmament talks under the aegis of Six-Party Negotiations back in May, 2009 he contends that suspension of uranium enrichment activities as envisioned in February, 2012 agreement may not be accomplished considering their deceptive past behavior. He has said, “North Korea, we now know, will probably never truly and fully disarm of its own volition”.
Despite above examples of betrayal from the North Korean side, the announcement of last month coming from a new regime of Kim Jong-un, who is often accused of playing the tricks of his late father, is conspicuous as he has displayed his intentions of suspending the controversial nuclear program under the supervision of international nuclear guardian such as the IAEA. Let us hope that the recent gesture from North Korea proves fruitful in creating congenial atmosphere for peace in a very destabilized and militarized region of the world, where key players of international politics like the U. S. and China have been engaged in ascertaining their claims for dominance.