North Korea agrees to moratorium on nuclear activities

By Daniele Pestilli on March 2, 2012

Two months after the death of North Korea’s former supreme leader, Kim Jong Il, his son and heir Kim Jong Un has taken a first step in reconciliation with the international community.

The decision was formally announced on February 29th, but the deal had been already discussed a week earlier in Beijing.

The decision is to cease uranium enrichment (which can lead to the production of materials that can be used for nuclear weapons) and long-range missile tests. They will also allow inspectors from the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to visit and inspect North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear complex to verify the claim. In return for the moratorium on nuclear activities, the US is to provide 240,000 tons of food (mostly biscuits) to the communist country’s famished populace.

This is notable for a plethora of reasons.

First, it demonstrates Jong Un’s – or his supporting comrades' – ostensible pliability compared to his father's. According to an article in The Economist, Kim Jong Il had requested 330,000 tons of food – primarily grains and rice. That is 90,000 tons less than what is being asked for now. Rice is Korea’s staple food, so it sounds strange that the US would agree to provide biscuits instead of rice.

Second: North Korea has dropped its insistence on obtaining rice. This can be interpreted as evidence of change in the hermit kingdom. As a netizen commented, “rice and grain can be stored and last for quite a bit, making it likely that the two could be horded by the army. Biscuits expire more quickly, and are therefore, at least in theory, more likely to make it into the hands of the average starving N. Korean.” In the past, a lot of the rice that was sent as an aid to the starving North Korean population was secretly smuggled to the army. An article on CNN confirms this claim by quoting State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland: “there will be intensive monitoring to assure that the delivery is made to those in need and not diverted to the military or government elites”.

The third reason this breakthrough is notable is because it comes at a crucial moment in time.

The Obama administration is stepping up pressure on Iran over nuclear ambitions and is going to visit Seoul for a nuclear security summit in several weeks. Furthermore, the US is soon to face presidential elections, and it certainly does not want any mischief during election year. North Korea seems keen on letting Obama win. In an article on The Australian, associate professor at Tokyo's National Graduate Institute of Policy Studies, Narushige Michishita, argues that this breakthrough will give Obama a boost in the elections, and will help the US loosen its policy towards North Korea. As experience has shown, “second-term presidents have a lot more flexibility in foreign policy”.

Fourth, as aforementioned, the deal had been discussed a week earlier in Beijing. China is currently set to face some very big changes: due to term restrictions, Chinese President Hu Jintao must step down as the General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 2012, and as President in 2013. His successor is presumably Xi Jinping, China’s Vice-President, Vice-Chairman of the Central Military Commission and top-ranking member of the Politburo Standing Committee – the de facto highest and most powerful decision-making body in China. Furthermore, Vice Premier Li Keqiang will likely replace the current Premier Wen Jiabao. China is also North Korea’s closest ally, without which the North would be practically defenseless. Given the imminent political turnover, China must ensure a smooth transition. The country is already facing turmoil in the west by Tibetans and Uyghurs (ethnic Turkic people who are Muslim by tradition), as well as in the southern province of Guangdong. China is also facing international pressure for the repatriation of North Koreans who flee from their homeland over the Tumen river into China. When repatriated, they are notably tortured and executed. Internally, Chinese people have also been blogging about the bizarre atmosphere surrounding the Wang Lijun incident – an indication of the power struggle that is taking place ahead of the decisive congress. Mr. Wang, Chongqing’s vice-mayor, had asked to meet American officials at the Chengdu consulate on February 6th. Voice of America reported that his encounter with American officials caused great embarrassment to Bo Xilai, another potential candidate to the CCP’s presidency. It is clear, then, that China cannot afford rash moves on behalf of North Korea and will support it – probably with food and funds – if non-brash policies are taken.

Essentially, this strategic, conciliatory move on behalf of North Korea, which US secretary of state Hillary Clinton called “a modest first step in the right direction” could not have been more timely or well-planned.

Nevertheless, we must not be led into believing that Kim Jong Un is turning the rudder in the opposite direction and radically changing the approach from that of his predecessors. In fact, there is unquestionable continuity in the regime’s goals, and it would be folly to believe that Jong Un is the sole decision-maker. An article on Reuters quotes Jack Pritchard, a former US negotiator with North Korea who heads the Korea Economic Institute, as saying, “How does a 28-year-old give up the only legitimate piece of leverage that he has in dealing with the superpowers to preserve the survivability of his regime? He's not going to do that.”

The presence of a state-of-the-art nuclear complex in North Korea such as the one at Yongbyon makes it safe to assume that it is not the first time they have built such a facility, and there are probably others. Allowing IAEA inspections at one facility in return for food and partial lifting of sanctions on behalf of the US is not such a bad deal. The North is likely concealing secrets and probably has a few aces up its sleeve.

In the meanwhile, the possibility of 6-party talks, which include the North’s counterpart, South Korea, seems to be making little progress. Today, Yonhap News reported that the North has threatened to launch a “sacred war” against the South over the alleged defamation of its leadership. The communist regime is also irked by the joint US-South Korean military drills, which it claims are being staged for a planned invasion.

What North Korea’s true intentions are remain somewhat obscure, and why the US decided to provide 240,000 tons of food to the North on a whim in a time of global economic recession as well as worsening relations between the two Koreas remains perplexing.

American linguist, activist and philosopher, Noam Chomsky, once wrote, “one of the major reasons for government secrecy is to protect the government from its own population”. Upon visiting the US’s Vietnam War archives, he commented that there was very little that was truly secret about the documents: “Secrecy and deceit”, he argued, “are essential components of aggression. […] A system of centralized power, insulated from public scrutiny and operating in secret, possessing vast means of destruction and hampered by few constraints, will naturally tend to commit aggression and atrocities.”

All parties have much to gain and much to lose in these large-scale negotiations. Only time will tell which country is playing its cards best and which has the strongest capacity to preserve its secrets.