Nuclear Deal Buys Time for U.S. and North Korea ; Move to Restart Talks Gives Untested Leader a Foreign Policy Platform

By Sang-Hun, Choe | International Herald Tribune, March 2, 2012 | Go to article overview

Nuclear Deal Buys Time for U.S. and North Korea ; Move to Restart Talks Gives Untested Leader a Foreign Policy Platform


Sang-Hun, Choe, International Herald Tribune


In his first major act as leader in Pyongyang, Kim Jung-un has chosen to restart nuclear negotiations, hedging against overdependence on Chinese aid and developing the outlines of a foreign policy.

With their agreement that the United States will provide North Korea with food aid in return for a freeze in Pyongyang's nuclear activities, the two adversaries have essentially turned the clock back to early 2009, before the North Koreans expelled U.N. monitors and conducted their second test of a nuclear device. Three years later, both parties are again preparing the ground for six-nation talks, the well-worn framework for negotiating an end to North Korea's nuclear arms program.

There is one crucial difference, however, between then and now: North Korea's new leader is the late Kim Jong-il's inexperienced young son, Kim Jong-un, who must build up his own leadership credentials while negotiating within confines set by his father.

"It's significant and positive that Kim Jong-un, as his first major foreign policy action since becoming the North Korean leader, chose to strike a deal through dialogue, rather than staging a military provocation," Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, said of the agreement announced Wednesday. "The fact that his government was able to make a quick decision indicates that his grip on power is stable."

On Thursday, both South Korea and Japan welcomed the deal as an important first step, though they cautioned that they would wait to see whether North Korea would faithfully implement it. In Beijing, Hong Lei, a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, said that China was committed to promoting the six-party talks. Russia, also a party to the talks, said that they were close to being resumed.

The series of meetings with the United States that led to the surprise announcement Wednesday was initiated under Kim Jong-il before his death in December. The elder Mr. Kim walked away from the six-nation nuclear talks in 2009, after the United States demanded thorough inspections of his nuclear facilities. Washington retaliated with tighter sanctions, and South Korea cut off aid shipments, which made North Korea more dependent on trade and aid from China, an ally that analysts say the North Koreans have never fully trusted.

"Even before Kim Jong-il died, North Korea saw its excessive dependence on China as a risk and tried to regain some leverage by re-engaging the Americans," said Chang Yong-seok, senior researcher at Seoul National University's Institute for Peace and Unification Studies. "So in this latest deal, Kim Jong-un was following the course set by his father."

Still, analysts and U.S. officials alike were surprised by the speed with which the young North Korean leader -- or whomever is advising or guiding him within the opaque Pyongyang leadership -- made that decision.

"Very few analysts believed that anything of substance would happen in the first few months after Kim Jong-un came to power," said George A. Lopez, a former U.N. advisor and sanctions expert at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.

Timing may have been a factor in Mr. Kim's decision; he needs food aid this year for the national celebrations of what would have been the 70th birthday of his father and the centennial of his late grandfather, Kim Il-sung, the North's founding president. In the North, Mr. Yang said, the aid shipments promised by the United States were billed not as cause for humiliation but as a "diplomatic victory for Kim Jong-un."

Assuming that both sides follow through with the measures agreed upon Wednesday -- which include North Korea's allowing international inspectors to monitor activities at its main nuclear complex -- the six-nation talks, which have been suspended since early 2009, will probably resume, though no indication has been given as to when. …

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