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Wary Steps Forward With North Korea

Interviewee: Mark E. Manyin, Analyst in Asian Affairs, Congressional Research Service, Library of Congress
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
March 1, 2012

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The announcement that North Korea would suspend its nuclear and missile activities and allow IAEA inspectors to visit, and that the United States would send 240,000 tons of food aid to the country, marks an important moment in relations between the two countries, says Mark E. Manyin, an analyst for the Congressional Research Service. But, he says, although the agreement could lead to more North Korean concessions, most analysts who follow the issue are very skeptical that "we can do anything more to really denuclearize North Korea." Manyin says the best the United States can hope for is that a new diplomatic track down the road "can actually roll the nuclear program back."

The State Department and the North Korean Central News Agency both issued statements indicating a substantial deal involving a suspension of North Korea's nuclear activities and its missile program in return for substantial food aid from the United States. Can you summarize what the deal consists of?

The main areas that we are interested in is progress in denuclearizing North Korea's nuclear programs, and on that front, what the North Koreans agreed to do was to allow international inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to come back into North Korea, where they haven't been since 2009, to inspect and monitor their two nuclear programs: the plutonium program and, more importantly, their uranium enrichment program.

The North Koreans also agreed to a moratorium on key nuclear activities and also on long-range missile tests. Like the inspectors, these are agreements the North Koreans had made in the past in the context of other agreements with the United States and other nations, but when those arrangements fell through, the North Koreans went back to testing. On the food aid issue, the North Koreans have explicitly linked these concessions on the nuclear and missile issues to the provision of food assistance from the United States. The United States since 1995 has been one of the largest donors of food to North Korea, which has been suffering from famine and food shortages since then. But the United States hasn't been giving food to North Korea since 2009, and the North Koreans very much wanted the resumption of that food assistance.

The Obama administration denies that there is an explicit quid pro quo, but the North Koreans clearly are making that linkage, and the fact that these have been announced at the same time sort of reinforces that perception--although what the Obama administration will likely say is that we are willing to provide assistance because North Korea met our conditions on food aid, such as dropping restrictions on international monitors.

The U.S. statement doesn't mention the Six-Party Talks at all while the North Korean statement does. This reflects a key difference between the two sides.

Will this lead to resumption of the Six-Party Talks, involving also South Korea, Japan, China and Russia?

One of the interesting things to me about this announcement was that it almost came out simultaneously from the State Department and the North Korean Central News Agency, and they almost point-by-point match each other with at least one exception. And this area of difference could be significant in the future: the matter of the Six-Party Talks. The U.S. statement doesn't mention the Six-Party Talks at all, while the North Korean statement does. This reflects a key difference between the two sides. It's the impression of a lot of people in Washington that the Obama administration is going to be very cautious about jumping back to the Six-Party Talks for two reasons. One is the need for coordination with the other countries in the talks, particularly our allies South Korea and Japan.

Secondly, the Obama administration may want to proceed on this slowly and cautiously for domestic political reasons. In other words, the resumption of the Six- Party Talks, if it happens, could be some weeks or months long down the road. The North Koreans, along with the Chinese and Russians, appear to be much more eager to get back sooner. Among other differences between the two statements was that the North Koreans want to resume discussions about providing a so-called light-water nuclear reactor to North Korea, and the U.S. statement does not mention that. That has been an area of long-standing disagreement between the United States and North Korea. The North Koreans want this reactor, which we had promised to build in the 1990s and then halted construction in 2003. The United States has been reluctant to reopen those discussions.

One of the most interesting factors is that it is the first sort of international announcement while Kim Jung-un is in charge. Any significance in that?

This is significant because it is the first public international initiative that's come out since Kim Jong-il's death in December. Another significant point is that it appears to closely match with news that the United States and North Korea were reportedly on the verge of announcing before Kim Jong-il's death put off that announcement. So this indicates that the current regime is continuing the policies that were laid in place by Kim Jong-il.

Another area of significance on the food aid front is that in the weeks after Kim Jong-il's death, the North Koreans publicly ratcheted up their demands: they wanted more food, and better food. The United States is just talking about providing "nutritional assistance" in the form of, for example, food supplement biscuits. The North Koreans wanted rice, they wanted about a third more food than the U.S. was reportedly offering, but in this deal, North Korea appears to have backed off and gone back to what it apparently had agreed to in December, with the possible concession from the United States that the two sides would discuss additional food aid down the road.

It will be interesting to see [whether monitoring determines] that the food assistance is used properly and not diverted to the military from the intended recipients, who are likely to be vulnerable women and children. That's something that the members of Congress and others are going to be looking for. We also need to know what the IAEA monitors will be able to do. Will there be permanent food aid monitors? All these details need to be worked out.

Most analysts say North Korea does not want to give up its nuclear program and has compromised just to get the food aid. Do you think that's the case?

Many people believe that may be the case. Although this agreement could lead to more concessions from North Korea, most analysts who follow the issue are very skeptical that we can do anything more to really denuclearize North Korea. If you look at the administration policy, it focuses more on containing the North Korean nuclear program and holding out hope against hope that by starting a diplomatic track, perhaps at some point way down the road it can actually roll the nuclear program back.

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