The Tedious US-North Korea Nuclear Wrangle – Analysis


By Ivan Zakharchenko

North Korea has agreed to a nuclear and missile moratorium and to allow IAEA inspectors back into the country, the U.S. State Department triumphantly announced following talks with North Korea. But this is just the latest episode in this endless and tedious soap opera.

Washington traditionally resumes its dance with Pyongyang in the run-up to presidential elections, swapping humanitarian aid for North Korea’s pledge to suspend its nuclear program. As before, Pyongyang has not agreed to destroy its nuclear arsenal.

The talks held in Beijing, China, on February 23-24 culminated in an agreement to provide 240,000 metric tons of food to North Korea in return for a moratorium on nuclear tests and missile launches.

North Korea, which held underground nuclear explosions in 2006 and 2009, has not performed any nuclear testing or launched a long-range missile for the past three years. Why debate the issue then?

The answer lies in the history of the U.S.-North Korea relationship. Pyongyang makes the same move every four years, knowing that the United States will agree to rapprochement and even provide humanitarian aid ahead of the latest presidential election.

North Korea
North Korea

Since Americans can’t remember what happened in relations with North Korea before the previous election, they see Pyongyang’s agreement to curtail its nuclear and missile programs as the U.S. government’s victory over one of the remaining members of the “axis of evil” and a personal win for President Barack Obama. After North Korea consumes the U.S.-supplied food and Americans elect their next president, they will likely stop talking and will instead look for a new pretext to trade fresh accusations. But for now everything looks fine, with friends and allies hailing the positive efforts of Pyongyang and Washington.

Deaf talking to the blind

However, as the Americans love to say, the devil is in the details. A comparison of the U.S. State Department statement published February 29 and Pyongyang’s official statement released by the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reveals quite a few discrepancies, proving that the sides only hear what they want to and tune out the elements that clash with their narrative.

Under the agreement, the United States is to deliver monthly shipments of 20,000 metric tons of nutritional assistance, such as baby formula and vegetable oil, over the next year and to “take steps to improve… the bilateral relationship.” For its part, North Korea is to halt nuclear tests and long-range missile launches and suspend its nuclear program, in particular uranium enrichment at Yongbyon, a research facility located 100 km (62 miles) north of the North Korean capital. Inspectors from the UN International Atomic Energy Agency will monitor compliance with the moratorium.

At first glance everything looks fine, but there’s a catch. North Korea has pointed out that the compliance will depend on the progress of talks with the United States. The U.S. State Department has downplayed that provision, perhaps so as not to undermine its achievement.

During the background briefing in the State Department, journalists were made to understand that North Korea agreed to resume talks after the United States and the UN had slammed sanctions on it and indicated that it should take action to prove its intentions to denuclearize. It does not matter that Pyongyang has never refused to talk, or that the other side only talks with it when it needs something.

The goal is to resume the six-party talks that have been held on and off by Russia, the United States, China, North Korea, South Korea and Japan since August 2003. The talks have not halted North Korea’s nuclear program but actually resulted in the Communist state obtaining nuclear weapons.

For its part, North Korea implemented all of its step-by-step obligations, whereas its counterparts only searched for non-nuclear pretexts to further complicate the talks.

The latest U.S.-North Korean agreements stipulate the resumption of six-party talks, but the sides differ on their agenda.

Pyongyang said the talks should focus on lifting U.S. sanctions, which are strangling the country’s ailing foreign trade, and allowing North Korea to build a light-water nuclear reactor that cannot produce nuclear weapons-grade fissile materials.

In 1994, the Clinton administration agreed with North Korea to set up an international consortium for the construction of a nuclear power plant with two light-water reactors. But President George W. Bush terminated the project in 2003, when the plant was supposed to go on line. Pyongyang has been trying to convince the United States to resume the project, but its pleas have been drowned out by accusations that it was secretly building nuclear weapons, fearing the fate of Iraq and former Yugoslavia.

What North Korea gains

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il unexpectedly died of a heart attack in late December 2011 and he was succeeded by his youngest son, Kim Jong-un. An obscure political figure, he said he would carry on the policy of his father, who took over from his father, Kim Il-sung, years ago.

Considering the new developments, North Koreans must believe that the new leader will carry on the policy of his father and grandfather to make them prosperous and to make their country economically viable.

Achieving this goal will be all but impossible without developing normal relations with the United States, Japan and other countries. This is why rapprochement with Washington, even if temporary, would reaffirm Pyongyang’s declared intention to normalize relations with the United States, and would also show the people that the new leader is respected on the international stage.

Besides, the 240,000 metric tons of food aid should ease the country’s food problem.

What the United States gains

Americans maintained friendly relations with North Korea under the Clinton administration in the latter half of the 1990s, including after his reelection. Bilateral relations rapidly deteriorated under President Bush, but nuclear talks resumed by the end of his second term. Pyongyang pinned its hopes on the Democratic administration of Barack Obama, but he was too busy with the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

The U.S. administration took up the Korean issue only in this election year. As the North Korean Foreign Ministry said, the nuclear and missile moratorium was announced “at the request of the U.S. side.” This is yet another “food for nuclear moratorium” deal.

The U.S. security services will use this situation to update its information on Pyongyang, in particular its government elite and nuclear program.

But overall, the deal will not help resolve the North Korean nuclear issue or strengthen security. North Korea has nuclear technology and nuclear weapons. Western experts say that apart from the experimental facility at Yongbyon, which IAEA inspectors will visit, there are several other facilities that can be used to produce nuclear weapons.

Instead of negotiating endless food aid packages and useless moratoriums, the United States should recognize North Korea as a sovereign state and sign a peace treaty with it to replace the 1953 armistice. In other words, it should normalize relations with the “rogue” country.

But Washington is unlikely to do this, not for ideological reasons but because there are about 28,000 U.S. troops permanently deployed in the south of the Korean Peninsula. South Korean taxpayers pay $700 million annually for the U.S. protection against the threat from the North. The end of that threat would make U.S. troops unnecessary. So ultimately it boils down to money.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

Ria Novosti

RIA Novosti was Russia's leading news agency in terms of multimedia technologies, website audience reach and quoting by the Russian media.

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