The announcement from the State Department Wednesday that North Korea has agreed to suspend its uranium-enrichment program and its long-range missile and nuclear tests in exchange for 240,000 metric tons of food aid may seem like a major concession, but it isn’t impressing many in the Washington foreign policy community.
“Haven’t we seen this movie before?” asked Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute, who writes on North Korea. “It ran under both the Clinton and the George W. Bush Administrations.”
The ending, according to Eberstadt, should be a familiar one to anyone who has paid attention: “Pyongyang ends up shaking down the international community for lots of food and cash, keeping its nukes and missiles, and getting ready to start up the game again for a whole new bunch of suckers.”
North Korea launched two nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009 and expelled the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors from the country in 2002 and 2009. Despite those events, the George W. Bush administration negotiated with the North Koreans.
The Obama administration has said it would not repeat those mistakes, stating that it “will not buy this horse for a third time” by re-entering negotiations with North Korea. However, after Wednesday’s State Department announcement, the administration may be making itself vulnerable to criticism for retreating from its original position.
But the cost is minimal for the United States and could be worth it, says Victor Cha, a former White House Asia adviser, now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“On one hand, you could say with the food aid that they’re buying the same horse for the third time,” said Cha to The Washington Post earlier Wednesday. “On the other hand, it means getting a handle on what has been a runaway nuclear program that’s continued unabated for more than three years. For that, a bit of food isn’t that high of a price.”
As part of the agreement, North Korea has also agreed to allow officials from the International Atomic Energy Agency to resume inspection of its uranium-enrichment facilities.
With some reservation, Richard Bush, director of the Brookings Institution’s Center for Northeast Asian Policy Studies says there is something to be valued from Wednesday’s announcement.
“Washington, Seoul and Tokyo have long sought [North Korean] actions that demonstrate some degree of seriousness and sincerity toward resolving the nuclear dispute in a way that is acceptable to us and the steps announced today were on the list we had put forward,” said Bush.
He acknowledged that the move was only a confidence building measure, but noted that “they could indeed be an initial step on a path towards serious negotiations, negotiations that Pyongyang scuttled by its own actions.”
The State Department, which brokered the deal last week in Beijing, appears to be cautiously optimistic about the results.
“The United States still has profound concerns regarding North Korean behavior across a wide range of areas, but today’s announcement reflects important, if limited, progress in addressing some of these,” said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland in a statement.