Saturday, March 3, 2012

North Korean nuclear progress-Leap of faith

AN UNTESTED youngster, keen to assert his leadership ahead of the April 15th centenary of the birth of his revered grandfather, Kim Il Sung, founder of North Korea, might easily have opted for a more belligerent first gesture to the outside world. Something snazzy like an attack on a South Korean ship, for instance, or a missile launch. Instead, Kim Jong Un’s government has made a surprising and conciliatory move. On February 29th it announced at the same time as the American government that it had agreed to freeze nuclear tests, long-range missile launches and uranium enrichment, as well as invite back international nuclear inspectors kicked out in pique in 2009. Few thought that so soon after the death of Mr Kim’s father, Kim Jong Il, in December, a young man still in his 20s would have the gumption to go so far.

The administration of President Barack Obama, which has always taken a position of “strategic patience” towards North Korea, appears to have made few sacrifices in what it calls the “Leap-day deal”. It has offered 240,000 tonnes of food, a great part of it in the form of biscuits more likely to go straight to those many North Koreans suffering from chronic malnutrition, such as children and pregnant mothers, rather than to the army or to the privileged. American officials say North Korea dropped its insistence on grains and rice being included, and will allow an extensive international monitoring system to be installed before food is delivered.

Stephan Haggard and Marcus Noland of the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, DC, say North Korea dropped its demand made repeatedly under Mr Kim’s father that the country should receive 330,000 tonnes of food. After the death of Kim Jong Il, “there were questions as to whether anyone was in charge of Pyongyang. Now we know that someone is capable of making decisions, and their first one constitutes a conciliatory (indeed concessionary), not belligerent, gesture,” academics write.

American officials acknowledge that North Korea has plenty of room to renege on its commitments, as it has frequently done before. They cast the deal as only a modest step in the right direction. In the statements from both governments are subtle but revealing differences. The State Department says North Korea has agreed to the return of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors to monitor a moratorium on uranium enrichment at the Yongbyon nuclear facility as well as the disablement of a plutonium-fuelled reactor. A North Korean government official, quoted by the state news agency, made no mention of the plutonium facilities, and said the monitoring would proceed only so long as “productive dialogues continue”.

North Korea is believed to have other enrichment facilities besides Yongbyon.

What is more, the American statement made no mention of a resumption of six-party talks with North Korea, which also include South Korea, China, Japan and Russia. The talks, which are aimed at full denuclearisation in North Korea in exchange for copious foreign support, broke down in December 2008, several months before Pyongyang kicked out IAEA inspectors. In its statement, North Korea twice mentioned the resumption of six-party talks, through which it said it would aim for the removal of sanctions against it and for the long-promised provision of light-water nuclear reactors for power generation. American officials, however, said the agreements “merely unlock the door to the resumption, eventually, of six-party talks”, contingent on further signs of good faith from North Korea. They said it was up to the regime in Pyongyang to make the next moves, approaching the IAEA and allowing experts in to monitor food distribution.

An intriguing question about the deal is what it says about the young Mr Kim—and whether his regime represents a fundamental shift from his father’s. The negotiating team was the same, which suggested continuity. But ahead of the centennial celebrations for Kim Il Sung, his grandfather, the agreements on food aid suggest that Kim Jong Un may be more sensitive to North Koreans’ hunger and resentment—though admittedly it is hard for him to be any less sensitive than his father.

Hawks in Washington and Seoul insist there is nothing in the agreement to commit North Korea to scrapping its nuclear arsenal. Still, the deal hints at a pliability on the part of North Korea that looks out of character. John Delury of Yonsei University in South Korea says that “I’m a bit surprised they’ve agreed to moratoriums and re-entry of IAEA inspectors in exchange for 240,000 tonnes of biscuits. That’s not a diplomatic victory by their standards.” The Economist

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