[Viewpoint] Facing the fundamental barrier

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[Viewpoint] Facing the fundamental barrier

While Kim Jong-il’s death kept reporters and officials busy over the Christmas holiday, there has been relatively little exciting news of late about diplomacy with Pyongyang. That may be why North Korea’s announcement on Jan. 11 about its ongoing discussions with the United States has prompted headlines around the world about the North being disappointed but “open to talks.” However, it would be a mistake to view these developments as more than tactical maneuvering. The fundamental obstacles to significant diplomatic progress with Pyongyang are still firmly in place.

According to the Jan. 11 North Korean media report, which was based on an interview with a senior official from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the United States had offered in July 2011 to provide food aid if North Korea halted its uranium enrichment program. Now, according to the North Korean account, Washington has shifted the terms by backing away from an initial offer of 300,000 tons of food aid and instead proposing 240,000 tons of “nutritional assistance” such as vitamins and biscuits for children and seniors. The statement also claimed that the United States offered to end sanctions in exchange for suspending uranium enrichment. While critical of alleged American perfidy, the North Korean diplomat stated that a more forthcoming American position could lead to further talks.

The U.S. side is not revealing the content of the talks with the North, but here is what seems plausible about Pyongyang’s statement. First, it is likely that Washington was in discussions with Pyongyang about providing assistance in response to assessments of shortages in the North’s harvest and may have been moving closer to an arrangement when Kim Jong-il suddenly died. It also seems clear that the administration was at least indirectly linking provision of food aid to more meaningful resumption of talks on the nuclear issue.

However, it seems unlikely that Washington changed its offer as Pyongyang claims, since the United States has for some years now preferred the provision of vitamins, biscuits and other nutritional sources that cannot be easily diverted to the elite or the army. The fact that the State Department began describing this as “nutritional assistance” instead of “food aid” may have angered the North Koreans, but the content of U.S. assistance should never have been in doubt to Pyongyang. More likely, the North is angling to get a better deal. (Frankly, the only condition on providing humanitarian assistance to the people of North Korea should be to ensure those in need receive it, but that is the subject for another column.)

Pyongyang also claimed in the Jan. 11 official article that the United States offered to end sanctions in exchange for suspension of the North’s uranium enrichment program. At first glance, this seems like a bold new opportunity for a “grand bargain” with the North, but some perspective is necessary. The George W. Bush administration in June 2004 also suggested that the lifting of sanctions would be possible with the complete verifiable and irreversible dismantlement of the North’s nuclear programs. Could U.S. diplomats have suggested a similar end state for negotiations this time? Very probably.

Could U.S. diplomats have offered the partial lifting of sanctions in exchange for a vague and unverifiable commitment from the North to “freeze” its uranium program? That seems much less likely for two reasons. First, the October 2008 decision to lift some sanctions in exchange for a North Korean verification protocol on its plutonium programs is now widely viewed in Washington as a mistake since it did huge damage to U.S.-Japan and U.S.-South Korea relations and the North reneged on providing those protocols anyway. In the wake of the North’s second nuclear test, the 2008 compromise on sanctions appears even more misguided. But perhaps more importantly, any effort to replay that strategy of lifting sanctions in an election year would be met by withering criticism from the U.S. media and President Barack Obama’s Republican opponent. The bottom line is that nothing in the North Korean statement suggests that Washington or Pyongyang have found a way out of the fundamental barrier to meaningful diplomacy right now. With Pyongyang’s serial cheating on previous agreements, Washington needs even greater reassurances and verification to ensure it is not being snookered again. Meanwhile, with each new plutonium-based nuclear test and advancement in its uranium enrichment program, Pyongyang feels more empowered to make demands from Washington, including the North’s ultimate demand to be accepted as a nuclear weapons state - something which State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland had to reiterate was unacceptable.

The North will extract what it can from the U.S., South Korea and Japan in terms of assistance to mark what the regime’s state organs are calling the year of a “prosperous and powerful nation.” After that, the question is how soon the North turns back to fulfilling its previous pledges to make 2012 the year that it becomes a full nuclear weapons state.

*The author is a senior adviser and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

by Michael Green

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