North Korea Makes Nuclear Concessions For Food Aid

Playing a game that we’ve seen from them before, the North Korean regime is apparently giving in a little on their nuclear program in exchange for desperately needed food aid:

WASHINGTON — North Korea agreed to suspend nuclear weapons tests and uranium enrichment and allow international inspectors to monitor activities at its main nuclear complex, the North’s official news agency and the State Department announced on Wednesday. The promises could end years of a standoff that has allowed the North’s nuclear program to continue with no international oversight and are part of a deal that included an American pledge to ship food aid to the isolated, impoverished nation.

Although the Obama administration called the steps “important, if limited,” they signaled a potential breakthrough in the impasse over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program following the death late last year of the country’s leader, Kim Jong-il. He has since been replaced by a son, Kim Jong-un, and administration officials have been watching closely to see if his rise to power would alter the country’s behavior. North Korea also agreed on a moratorium on launches of long-range missiles, which have in the past raised military tensions in South Korea and Japan.

North Korea has agreed in the past to halt its nuclear program, only to back out, demanding more concessions or accusing the United States of reneging on its obligations. And the statement Tuesday from the North’s official Korean Central News Agency appeared to give the country’s leaders wiggle room again this time, saying that Pyongyang would carry out the agreement “as long as talks proceed fruitfully.”

Still, North Korea’s agreement to allow inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency to return to the country appeared to be a significant concession. After years of negotiations, North Korea expelled inspectors and went on to test nuclear devices in 2006 and 2009. American intelligence officials believe the country has enough fuel already for six to eight weapons.

If the North lives up to its agreement to stop uranium enrichment, it could help ease some anxieties in the administration over the program at a time when the administration, in an election year, is consumed with halting Iran’s nuclear program before Israel decides to stage an attack.

For the relatively young and inexperienced Mr. Kim, the agreement could be crucial to solidifying his hold on power and the backing of the powerful military, analysts in South Korea said. He needs to show in his early months in power that he is improving people’s lives after years of food shortages and a devastating famine, and bringing in 240,000 metric tons of food aid from the United States will surely help.

The timing is also important for Mr. Kim, analysts said, because his father had declared this would be a breakout year for North Korea, when its economy would take off and the country would stage elaborate national celebrations. The celebrations will mark the 100-year anniversary of the birth of Kim Il-sung, the nation’s founder and Kim Jong-un’s grandfather.

Food aid — and better international relations that could lead to economic support — are considered critical for the country’s leaders to be able to stage the celebrations with the lavishness their people have come to expect.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, speaking at a House appropriations hearing, expressed cautious optimism.

“The United States, I will be quick to add, still has profound concerns,” she said.  “But on the occasion of Kim Jong Il’s death, I said that it is our hope that the new leadership will choose to guide their nation onto the path of peace by living up to its obligations. Today’s announcement represents a modest first step in the right direction.”

As with all things from Pyongyang, of course, there’s plenty of reason to be suspicious and plenty of reasons to think that this is merely a temporary gesture designed to alleviate a national calamity at a time where the new leader is potentially still vulnerable to rivals in the military. Give them a few more years and they’ll be up to their old tricks again, unless and until their Chinese patrons decide they’re done with them. It does lead to several interesting possibilities, though. Does this mean that Kim Jong-Un is really interested in ending North Korea’s isolation from the world, or that there’s a famine going on that’s far worse than we’ve been led to believe?

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. michael reynolds says:

    It’s a fool that trusts the North Koreans. But it’s also a fool who doesn’t seize an opportunity. We’ll see.

  2. It would be tempting to just let them collapse under the weight of another famine but with 20,000 missiles and artillery pieces aimed at Seoul that’s not a risk worth taking

  3. Rob in CT says:

    Same old game of blackmail.

    And yeah, I reluctantly agree with you two. I’ve advocated in the past that we should simply refuse to talk to NK, FULL STOP. Do as you will, but we’ll not give you a dime. Wash our hands of it.

    But considering that’s not at ALL what our friend and ally, the ROK, seems to want, it’s a bit difficult to execute. And it’s hard for me to get all high and mighty with the ROK, given the missles, arty, etc. and their proximity thereto.

  4. Septimius says:

    North Korea is a worker’s paradise, and a shining example of socialism.

  5. An Interested Party says:

    North Korea is a worker’s paradise, and a shining example of socialism.

    Such a cheap, specious statement…hardly surprising though, considering the source…

  6. Joseph Mucia says:

    Even if it is only temporary, it still seems like a good deal as it will let the U.S. and IAEA evaluate the current state of NK’s nuclear program, rather than simply guestimate from satellite imagery and possible production values based on equipment inventories.

  7. Septimius says:

    @An Interested Party: Oh my God. I can’t believe you actually fell for it. That is hilarious.

  8. An Interested Party says:

    Oh my God. I can’t believe you actually fell for it. That is hilarious.

    Ohhhh, now I see, you are a parody…thank you for the clarification…

  9. Septimius says:

    @An Interested Party: It it weren’t for those pesky human beings messing it up, socialism could work. Hahahahaha

  10. An Interested Party says:

    @Septimius: So now you are laughing at your own statements…that seems fair, as you are showing yourself to be a joke…