North Korea to Suspend Uranium Enrichment and Let in IAEA Inspectors. But at What Cost?

Some very, very big news in the ever evolving saga of North Korea’s nuclear program. American officials announced this morning that they have struck a deal with Pyongyang in which North Korea will suspend its uranium enrichment program at its main nuclear facility, stop all missile tests, and also permit International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors to visit the country. The IAEA has not set foot in North Korea since 2009, when the six party talks last broke down.

Three thoughts on this development.

1) This deal had been in the works for a while. In fact, it was expected to be announced on Thursday December 22, when USA and North Korea were set to have a round of talks, but Kim Jong Il died that Monday.  It would seem that the new regime decided to stay on this path which suggests, of course, that they are amenable to negotiations. A good sign!

2) We’ve seen this movie before.  There is a predictable cycle in which 1) the USA promises aid and North Korea promises to give a little on its nuclear program. 2) People like me hail the agreement. 3) North Korea violates the terms of the agreement and the USA and others get angry. 4)Then North Korea tests some missile. 5) The Security Council imposes sanctions. 6) Then North Korea comes crawling back to the negotiating table after a few years. Then, back to Step 1. Rinse, repeat.

Under new leadership, though, perhaps this pattern will be broken?

3). Empty stomachs were a US negotiating tactic. The USA has been holding up a long promised shipment of 240,000 metric tons of food aid for North Korea pending progress on nuclear talks. Humanitarian groups have been blasting the Obama administration for using food as a political tool to force Pyongyang’s hand. This was a true moral dilemma that the Obama administration faced: should they use the starvation of innocent North Koreans as pressure point to force the regime to the negotiating table, or should they de-couple humanitarian aid from the nuclear talks. Keeping the two separate has traditionally been US policy. But, in a rare moment of candor, a top US military official told the US Senate just yesterday that “preconditions” for assistance “now include discussions of cessation of nuclearisation and ballistic missile testing and the allowance of IAEA perhaps back into Yongbyon [reactor]”.

That tactic apparently worked. So, what is the greater evil: letting people starve or letting a country develop a truly horrible weapon of mass destruction.