North Korea has decided to temporarily halt its uranium enrichment program, nuclear testing and long-range missile development and allow International Atomic Energy Agency officials to inspect its nuclear facilities. In exchange, the U.S. has agreed to send 240,000 tons of nutritional assistance in the form of biscuits and baby formula and work for additional food aid.
U.S. and North Korean officials agreed on those terms in a third round of high-level talks in Beijing last Thursday and Friday and made a joint announcement in Washington and Pyongyang. Seoul and Washington had been calling on North Korea to meet those terms as a prerequisite to resuming the stalled six-party nuclear talks. If North Korea abides by them, the six-party talks, halted in December 2008, can resume.
The U.S. and North Korea hammered out the broad outline of the agreement in two rounds of talks in July and December last year, before the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. The agreement is significant because it shows that the new leader Kim Jong-un is willing to continue his father's policy.
Seoul and Washington will monitor whether North Korea abides by the agreed terms and assess Kim Jong-un's authority. The reason why the regime is trying harder to improve ties with the U.S. is that it needs international aid for handouts so it can consolidate its hold on power, since this year marks the centenary of nation founder Kim Il-sung.
U.S. President Barack Obama, who is seeking a second term in office this year, needs to focus on containing the Iranian nuclear crisis and cannot afford to let the North Korean nuclear problem worsen.
In November 2010, North Korea showed its uranium enrichment facilities to a U.S. nuclear scientist to gain another bargaining card in talks with the U.S. Pyongyang wanted to get more food aid from Washington by offering to halt its uranium enrichment program, while continuing with plutonium extraction to develop nuclear weapons. A more complicated issue is whether or not the North will include uranium enrichment facilities other than those at the Yongybong nuclear complex. North Korea said in its announcement it will "temporarily halt" nuclear activities "while meaningful talks continue," while demanding an end to sanctions and the resumption of an abortive project to build a safer light-water reactor in the North with foreign money.
In other words, North Korea will make demands at each level of negotiations and renege on its promises if its demands are not met.
During the latest round of U.S.-North Korea meetings, the North only spoke to South Korean officials twice but stuck to its tactics to exclude the South from talks with U.S. by refusing to deal with the Lee Myung-bak administration. If it wishes to gain any concessions from the six-party talks, be they the light-water reactor or food aid, it must realize that South Korean money is crucial. The government and political parties here must close rank to make North Korea realize this and return to the negotiating table with a genuine willingness to make progress.
If the ruling and opposition parties try to appease North Korea to win more votes in the upcoming general and presidential elections, Seoul will end up footing the bill while failing to realize any of its goals. The political parties here and the North Korean regime should remember that South Koreans have not forgotten about the sinking of the Navy corvette Cheonan.