The sudden agreement between the US and North Korea over its nuclear program was a positive surprise to many, but the reaction in Washington is still cautious.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described it as a "modest step in the right direction." White House spokesman Jay Carney said it was "a positive first step toward complete and verifiable denuclearization of the Korean peninsula in a peaceful manner."
With the new bilateral agreement, North Korea has agreed to stop nuclear testing, stop building long-range missiles and stop enriching uranium, and has promised to allow inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to visit its Yongbyon nuclear research center.
"This doesn't mean that the six-party talks will suddenly start again tomorrow," Bruce Klingner of the Heritage Foundation told Deutsche Welle. Klingner was previously responsible for assessing North Korea's military capacity in the US intelligence service, CIA.
Klingner believes the agreement merely opens the door to bilateral talks between North Korea and the US with the aim of drawing up an agenda for future six-party talks.
These six-party negotiations on the denuclearization of North Korea, which also include South Korea, China, Japan, Russia and the US, have been on ice since April 2009, when North Korea abandoned them.
Negotiations for resuming the talks already took place last year, during the tenure of former North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il. The US government was fairly surprised when Pyongyang signaled that these talks could resume almost without interruption shortly after his death.
Carney emphasized that US government policy has not changed since President Barack Obama's term began. According to Evans Revere of the Brookings Institute, the US plays a central role in negotiations and has been pushed to resume talks by the Chinese. Revere was a long-term Asia expert in the US State Department and has experience in negotiating with the North Koreans. "The US has always made clear that there must be progress, or at least the hope of progress, before it will take part," he said.
Revere believes the new agreement offers exactly this hope. It means, he says, that the countries are back at the stage where they were three years ago.
Humanitarian aid is not a reward
But the US has observed North Korea in the last few years with growing concern. "Since the sinking of the [South Korean warship] Cheonan and the artillery attack on the [South Korean] island Yeonpyeong in 2010, there has been a lot of concern in the US that North Korea will risk more provocative actions if there are no talks," he said. This was a bit of incentive for the US to resume talks, Revere believes.
The US has taken care to say that the 240,000 tons of humanitarian aid being shipped to North Korea is not a reward for its statement on the nuclear program. Instead, according to the State Department, the aid has been made possible, because the tiny dictatorship has dropped two key demands. North Korea is no longer asking for rice and grain, which the US had refused, because this could be diverted to military or political elites, and it is allowing the observation of food distribution.
North Korea sets the pace
Shipments of vegetable oil, leguminous plants and special nutrition for premature babies and small children have been approved. The deliveries will be divided up into 20,000-ton shipments over the next 12 months. It remains unclear when this will begin, but it seems that North Korea has some interest in making sure it begins soon, since even the government has admitted that hunger is a "burning issue" in the country.
The US is now expecting North Korea to make contact with IAEA in order to organize inspections. There is considerable concern that the North Koreans could back out of this at the last minute, as they have done before. Indeed, they actually agreed to end their nuclear program in 2005, but then failed to do so.
At the end of the day, says Revere, no matter what the US government wants, Pyongyang will set the pace. "If North Korea doesn't want any exchange or any talks or any negotiations, then the US government can't do much about it."
Not an election tactic
This also contradicts the theory that President Obama is seeking to enter negotiations with North Korea this year, in order to score a major success ahead of the election. Of course, the US wants to avoid an escalation, "but if you talk to members of the Obama administration, you find they're not optimistic that they can score a foreign policy success with North Korea."
Even if six-party talks do resume, few people believe that North Korea really will give up its nuclear ambitions. North Korea expert Scott Snyder, of the Council on Foreign Relations, told Deutsche Welle, "There is good reason to be pessimistic that the six-party talks can achieve the goal of denuclearizing North Korea in exchange for diplomatic normalization with the US."
Author: Christina Bergmann, Washington, DC / bk
Editor: Gregg Benzow