N. Korea reopens door to food-for-nukes deal with United States

North Korea on Wednesday signaled a willingness to freeze its uranium enrichment program in exchange for “confidence-building” incentives from the United States, such as a suspension of sanctions and a resumption of food aid.

The statement, carried by North Korea’s state-run news agency and attributed to a Foreign Ministry spokesman, was the first sign that the North’s new young leader, Kim Jong Eun, might be open to a deal discussed last year and then put on hold after the death of his father, Kim Jong Il.

The statement had a chiding tone — it criticized Washington for linking a humanitarian issue with a security issue — but it had none of the bellicose rhetoric typical of Pyongyang’s foreign pronouncements.

The United States should “build confidence” by increasing the amount of food aid included in the deal, the statement said.

Until Wednesday, North Korea had never commented on the aid-for-weapons talks under discussion; it also had not issued a direct message to Washington since the elder Kim’s death Dec. 17.

In the days before Kim died, the Obama administration had been planning to resume food aid to the authoritarian nation, according to U.S. officials briefed on discussions but unauthorized to speak on the record. The United States hoped to use that gesture to secure a suspension of North Korea’s uranium enrichment program and a possible return to multi-nation denuclearization talks.

Even now, a deal would be politically fraught for both sides.

Kim Jong Eun, who has risen quickly to power since his father’s death, would gain a chance to address his country’s massive food shortages, but in turn would have to relinquish part of a weapons program that North Korea uses to bolster its security and its national pride.

The Obama administration, after years of distance, now wants closer contact with the reclusive country as a way to influence its behavior. But any move toward engagement runs counter to skepticism about Pyongyang’s willingness to give up its weapons. North Korea has used previous denuclearization deals to extract food and energy aid, only to back out on its promises.

At some point “there will be a deal,” said Robert Gallucci, president of the MacArthur Foundation and the former chief U.S. negotiator with North Korea. “We’ll be giving them [aid] and trying to buy them off. Some people will say they’ll never give up their nuclear weapons program. Others say we’ve got to try. It’s déjà vu.”

The United States halted its previous food shipments to North Korea almost three years ago, after a long-range missile test by Pyongyang. At that point, Washington had shipped about a third of a planned 500,000 metric tons of food.

Now, Pyongyang wants the rest. In its Wednesday statement, it asked for more than 300,000 tons and accused the United States of lowering the amount to be sent. Media reports last month said the United States was preparing to send 240,000 tons to North Korea.

U.S. officials have voiced concern that Pyongyang will divert food aid to the governing elite, distribute it to the military or sell it to private markets at a profit. North Korea restricts the ability of aid workers to operate in the country, allowing for little transparency. Any resumption of food aid would probably involve new agreements about monitoring.

“We would want to go forward in a way that gave us maximum confidence that the nutritional assistance would go to those in need and could not be diverted to any other uses,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Monday.

Aid groups describe major food shortages in North Korea, particularly in rural areas where the state-run food distribution system offers little help. This month, the country made a rare mention of its “burning” food problem, but it provided no clear answer for improving the system, calling only for more efficient farming practices and greater loyalty to the revolution.

Chico Harlan covers personal economics as part of The Post's financial team.

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