The United States released a statement February 29 announcing "important, if limited, progress" in addressing U.S. concerns related to North Korea's nuclear program. In return for the provision of at least 240,000 tons of nutritional assistance, Pyongyang has pledged to place a moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile tests and to pursue an IAEA-monitored shutdown of its uranium enrichment activities at Yongbyon.
The primary benefit of the agreement is that it reduces risk that tensions may spin out of control during a period of domestic political uncertainty in both countries.
North Korean implementation of these actions may also pave the way for resumption of the Six-Party Talks, which envision eventual normalization of relations with North Korea in return for North Korea's abandonment of its nuclear weapons. North Korea's acceptance of a moratorium on nuclear and missile tests and the return of IAEA inspectors to Yongbyon are concrete actions that all sides can point to as justification for returning to dialogue. However, there is still reason for pessimism that the Six-Party Talks will be able to accomplish the goal of North Korean denuclearization in exchange for U.S. diplomatic normalization.
One immediate sticking point not addressed in the latest statements from Pyongyang and Washington is that North Korea has turned up the decibel level of its attacks on South Korea's Lee Myung-bak administration in recent weeks despite past U.S. insistence that stabilization of inter-Korean relations is a prerequisite for the Six-Party Talks to move forward. Given the vituperative rhetoric that the North has directed toward the Lee Myung-bak administration in recent weeks and North Korea's failure to acknowledge its 2010 provocations against South Korea, this is an additional issue that must be addressed as part of any return to the Six-Party Talks.
The U.S.-DPRK agreement is also "limited" in two other respects:
- A monitored shutdown of uranium enrichment facilities at Yongbyon does not preclude the likelihood that North Korea may be pursuing uranium enrichment at other facilities inside North Korea.
- The U.S. pledge to provide 240,000 tons of nutritional assistance is a floor rather than a ceiling; the gap over the amount of assistance that the DPRK had sought prior to the talks will likely be addressed by additional U.S. assistance pledges in the future.
Since the primary outlines of the agreement were actually negotiated during U.S.-DPRK bilateral talks held in July and October 2011 prior to Kim Jong-il's death, the agreement itself provides limited insight into how North Korea's new leadership makes decisions aside from reinforcing the North Korean emphasis on continuity of leadership as North Korea's succession process unfolds. Even if the Six-Party Talks reconvene in the 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.