A lot has already been written since the latest news on North Korea broke out on the very last day of the last month. This time, it was no false rumor of Kim Jong-un being shot dead spread on some Chinese forum, but something far more tangible: after the completion of a third round of bilateral negotiations, the U.S. and North Korea announced what has already been labeled the “leap day agreement,” a deal that, as U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton put it, is “a modest first step in the right direction.”
North Korean and U.S. officials have had informal discussions since July 2011, when the two sides first met in New York. A second round of exploratory talks was held on October, and athird one had been scheduled for December, but the sudden death of Kim Jong-il resulted in their postponement. However, negotiations were already pretty advanced at that point. Even if U.S. negotiators gave no indication about possible advances at the end of the latest round and observers pointed out that North Korea was still mired in a 100-day mourning period for the death of the Dear Leader, the scene was set for a deal.
On the surface, North Korea has made some important concessions, chiefly the offer to suspend uranium enrichment at its major nuclear complex at Yongbyon and invite back the International Atomic Energy Agency, which withdrew its inspectors fromNorth Koreasince 2009. Less remarkable, even if impressive in paper and somewhat reassuring for their Southern neighbors, is Pyongyang’s agreement to suspend the testing of long-range missiles or nuclear devices, since it can be easily resumed with no previous warning – as the North Koreans have already shown in the past.
In return for these concessions, the United States will provide North Korea with 240,000 metric tons of food, through regular monthly installments of about 20,000 tons of nutritional supplements, all under intensive monitoring, thus effectively resuming the U.S. role as one of North Korea’s main food donors since 1995. North Korean diplomats originally requested 320,000 metric tons of grains, but finally settled for a more modest amount in view of further paybacks down the road.
So, this is how we got there and what the deal is essentially about. We could go deeper into details, or discuss the numerous official reactions or the extremely diverse opinions ofNorth Koreaexperts, scholars or mere observers. However, a more useful approach might be answering – or, at least, trying to answer – some of the questions most observers might have about the implications of this agreement moving forward.
Will the food aid be delivered to those in need?
Most probably it will. The fact that it will consist of processed, high-protein nutritional supplements (i.e. a corn-soy blend) and not the rice and grain that the North Koreans initially demanded, coupled with the North Korean side dropping the restrictions on international monitors to supervise delivery, all but assures the 240,000 metric tons of food will be eaten by malnourished North Koreans (mostly young children and women) and not by Korean People’s Army soldiers.
However, the U.S.’ strategic goal of avoiding helping the regime and its military can be – and, in all probability, will be – indirectly bypassed. Even with credible guarantees that the shipments will not be used to feed the country’s elite or the North Korean military, or just released at the planned mass celebrations marking the 100th year anniversary of the birth of Kim Il-sung, there have been clear signals of food stockpiling by the regime, as reputed experts Marcus Noland and Stephan Haggard already pointed out by mid-2011.
Despite the budding famine experimented by the country, stockpiling of existences has become possible due to increased aid from China, which comes with no strings attached in terms of supervision: in less publicized talks, China affirmed it also discussed the provision of more food aid to North Korea just two days before the deal with the U.S. was announced. Hence the unusually frequent trips toChina– up to 3 – made by an ailing Dear Leader in the months leading to his death. Now, these nutritional supplements can be used to feed the neediest while keeping stocks of grain and rice strong in order to distribute them in the days going to April 15 which, according to official propaganda, should mark the dawn of “strong and prosperous” North Korean nation.
Does this deal imply that Kim Jong-un is here to stay?
Although it is still too early to categorically affirm that – remember, the nation is still mourning, the young leader is not yet 30 and the regime stays as secretive as ever –, the passing of this agreement shows a certain degree of internal stability within the DPRK’s inner power circles. Who is really calling the shots – is it really Kim Jong-un or a ruling clique led by his uncle and his aunt? – is still unknown, but the new supreme leader’s acquiescence of the agreement should be seen as a key prerequisite to its signing, clearly showing the young man is active and ready to wheel and deal.
Moreover, this deal being the continuation and the expected result of negotiations initiated while Kim Jong-il was still alive, it is also a clear proof of the continuity in North Korean policies, thus implying there are no major rumblings inPyongyang.
Finally, the deal helps establish a non-threatening external environment that will help North Korean leaders consolidate the controversial process of transferring power to the young and inexperienced Kim Jong-un. In other words, it gives the new leader and his clique time to establish themselves in power, as it considerably defuses external tensions despite not truly deactivating them.
As a North Korea expert from the prestigious Council on Foreign Relations already stated before the talks started, “even a modest agreement would buy time for North Korea to focus on internal affairs, as Kim Jong-un attempts to consolidate his leadership in advance of the Workers’ Party Conference to be held in Pyongyang on the 100th anniversary of Kim Il-sung’s birthday.” In conclusion, the deal with theU.S. indeed does, even if incidentally, play a key role in helping Kim Jong-un to stay in power during a key period for the future of theHermitKingdom.
Will it help improve inter-Korean relations?
As some analysts have already pointed out, another possible red flag of the agreement is the absence of a North Korean commitment to improve intra-Korean relations. However, this can be easily explained by the wait-and-see approach of the North Korean authorities regarding the political future ofSouth Korea, due for a presidential election later this year. Pyongyang can ill-afford suddenly stooping its criticism of hardliner Lee Myung-bak as it is waiting for widespread disillusionment with Lee’s liberal policies, especially among young South Koreans, to elevate a more Kim-friendly figure to the presidency the country.
The fact that the North Korean official statement mentions a possible resumption of the Six-Party Talks – while its U.S. counterpart does not – should not be taken as a sign of open goodwill towards its Southern and Eastern neighbors (i.e. South Korea and Japan) by the North Korean authorities. On the contrary,U.S.diplomats have repeatedly made it clear that bothKoreasshould strive to improve their relations before multilateral denuclearization talks can be rescheduled, and this omission from theU.S.communiqué shows no progress in that aspect has been made. From the North Korean side, the Six-Party Talks are only mentioned tied to revisiting the provision of the light water nuclear reactors promised by theU.S.more than a decade ago, and whose delivery was halted by the Bush administration. In other words, it can be easily dismissed as a mere display of self-interested rhetoric.
However, this deal can help Kim Jong-un justify his actions by saying he successfully completed an important diplomatic venture his father began. This gives reason to hope that the military provocations of 2010 – allegedly masterminded by the younger Kim – may not be repeated this year. For the time being, thus, it is wait-and-see for the twoKoreas, albeit possibly a less bloody one.
Is this United States-North Korea agreement also beneficial to China?
Yes, but with some (little-mentioned) reservations.
The fact that the deal defuses international tensions and temporarily scales back the prospects of menacing – or outright violent – acts by Beijing’s bizarre friends inPyongyangis highly valued among Chinese power circles, always craving for regional stability to foster internal growth.
However, there is some small print on the deal that should be taken into account – and sureChinais already monitoring it: the official statements call for “taking steps to increase people-to-people exchanges, including in the areas of culture, education, and sports” between the two nations. Here, it does not matter who is giving: even if the experts that consider this to be an “American concession”, asNorth Koreawould reportedly be eager to break out of its international isolation and deepen ties with the United States, turn out to be right, the possible consequences forBeijingwould still be there. Amidst a high-profile political campaign against – in Hu Jintao’s words, nonetheless – the “West’s assault” on China’s “culture and ideology”, the U.S. is backing its reorientation towards East Asia discourse with a veiled promise to make inroads in what stands, after the opening-up of Myanmar, as maybe the last safe haven for Chinese influence in the region.
Maybe it will just turn out to be a symbolic small print addendum to the important stuff, but we cannot rule out the possible effects of this breakthrough, which apparently contradicts the regime’s ideological pillars: North Korean moral superiority towards cruel, imperialist Americans (and their servile South Korean puppets, for that matter). In case such exchanges do ever happen, they could be seen as a veiled threat to the almost exclusive Chinese influence on theHermitKingdomand, at the same time, as a risky (or rather desperate) political move by the Kim regime, so dependent internally on anti-American propaganda.
Anyway, does this deal mean that North Korea is halting its nuclear program altogether?
No: pressing the pause button does not equal pressing the stop button, and North Korea has still enough leeway to keep enriching uranium in other unknown, unmonitored facilities: while intelligence reports indicate that uranium enrichment might be taking place in at least several additional locations, the ambiguous wording in the official statements doesn’t ensure that North Korea will allow monitoring of any nuclear activities outside the 2,000-centrifuge uranium-enrichment Yongbyon complex (capable of producing a weapon’s worth of highly enriched uranium every year).
Pyongyangcan also keep working to improve its stockpile of plutonium-based bombs: current intelligence estimates are that the country has made enough separated plutonium to manufacture about a half-dozen such weapons. Moreover, as already mentioned before,North Koreacould at any time resume testing its nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles with no previous warning: it happened in the past, and it could happen again in the future. In fact, its two previous nuclear tests and three tests of medium-range ballistic missiles all failed to one degree or another, so military leaders might want to conduct more at some point to get the technology right.
Is there any realistic chance that North Korea relinquishes its nuclear capabilities at some point in the future?
Future behavior of such a hermetic regime is almost impossible to predict. However, unpredictability does not mean irrationality, andNorth Koreahas proven to be an extremely rational – if aggressive – actor throughout the years. In other words, the North Korean regime should have extremely strong incentives and impossibly firm guarantees of non-interference in internal affairs in order to ever accept giving up its nuclear capability.
As impoverished as the country stands now, no sense of national strength and prosperity could be conveyed, even to brainwashed North Korean citizens, without the main (or rather the one and only) positive legacy of the Dear Leader and his military-first policy: nuclear weapons. Kim Jong-il, the leader that allowed hundreds of thousands of its citizens to starve to death in the 1990s, has been absolved of any responsibility for this mass murder by official propaganda: he wisely chose to focus on military affairs to secure the survival of the nation and the race. Obviously enough, the joint editorial of the party and army newspapers published on January 1, 2012 vowed to continue the “military-first policy” of Kim Jong-il.
As many analysts have been pointing out ever since the toppling of Colonel Gaddafi in Lybia and the upheaval in the rest of the Arab world against authoritarian regimes,North Koreamight well have increased its reluctance to ever give up its nuclear weapons. In fact, there are reasons to believe that the 2003 invasion ofIraqand the subsequent toppling of the Saddam Hussein regime prompted Kim Jong-il to accelerate the North Korean nuclear program and successfully detonate its first atomic device three years later.
Therefore, despite the undeniable progress that such a moratorium on certain nuclear-related activities represents, we should not be overly optimistic.East Asiamight be a safer place for the time being, but long-term, peaceful denuclearization prospects remain dire unless the current North Korean leadership progressively turns course and decides to considerably open up the economy and the political system.
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