Two months after his succession, North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un has seized the initiative by agreeing to restart denuclearization talks with the United States. The imperative for choosing to talk is clear: He urgently needs to establish leadership credentials at a time of domestic transition, especially in the face of acute food shortages ahead of the centennial celebration of his grandfather and the nation’s founder, Kim Il Sung, on April 15. The move also relieves international pressure on China to bring its close ally to the table, although it does little to ease Beijing’s strained relations with South Korea.
The deal from Kim Jong Un may also have his late father’s imprimatur. Under the February 29 agreement reached in Beijing, Pyongyang is to freeze its nuclear weapons program in exchange for 240,000 tons of U.S. food aid; the North must implement a moratorium on its uranium-enrichment activities and allow the International Atomic Energy Agency to inspect and monitor key nuclear facilities at Yongbyon. In addition, it will suspend long-range missile launches and nuclear tests and open the 5-megawatt reactor from which an unspecified amount of plutonium has already been extracted for a separate, previous weapons program. In short, this deal takes North Korea back to where it was in 2008, before it kicked out international inspectors from Yongbyon and walked out of the six-party confab in Beijing.
The new arrangement hardly gives reason for Washington, Seoul or Tokyo to breathe a sigh of relief. Indeed, there’s only a guarded optimism, given the history of North Korea’s duplicity and bad faith. “It’s a modest first step in the right direction,” was the cautious statement from U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. In Seoul, a foreign ministry official described the agreement as the first of many doors leading to resumption of six-party talks.
Taking a closer look at the terms of the agreement, officials in Seoul say they already find potential pitfalls: While the North Korean statement underscores demands for lifting sanctions and provision of a lightwater reactor – originally agreed to by the U.S. as it would be hard to divert for weapons use – at the stage of the next round of six-party talks, it does not mention disclosing secret underground nuclear facilities.
The only site specifically mentioned in the U.S. statement was the uranium-enrichment facility at the Yongbyon complex, Seoul officials said. This could keep disclosure limited to Yongbyon, already known, thus allowing the North a showcase as was done with the 5-negawatt site in previous inspections.
The large centrifuge collection facility at Yongbyon is not much of a secret: U.S. nuclear scientist Siegfried Hecker of the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University had a tour in November 2010 when he visited North Korea. According to senior security officials in Seoul, there are at least four other suspect underground facilities they understand are used for uranium-enrichment activities, mostly located near the China border, presumably as way of making potential U.S. bombing raids politically hazardous.
Indeed, China is the only party that appears excited over this agreement being potentially fruitful. No sooner had the agreement been announced, than Hong Lei, Beijing’s foreign ministry spokesman, commented that it was a start of “serious and constructive” dialogue.