Small step in the right direction

The United States and North Korea have found common ground. Washington and Pyongyang announced on Wednesday that the North would stop nuclear and missile provocations as the U.S. would proceed with the provision of food aid. This seeming consensus should open the door to the resumption of the stalled six-party talks.

Careful readers will note that the language that describes these developments is artfully hedged. For example, while the U.S. and North Korea simultaneously made similar — not identical — announcements, they did not in fact reach an agreement. Instead, in a telling indication of the lack of trust and confidence, the two governments took simultaneous unilateral actions.

North Korea said that it would implement a moratorium on nuclear tests, long-range missile launches and uranium enrichment activity at its Yongbyon nuclear facility, and would permit the reintroduction of inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency to monitor the moratorium on uranium enrichment and disablement of the reactor at the facility.

At the same time, the U.S. will proceed with a 240,000-ton package of food aid (and keep the door open to additional assistance in the future). Details of the package are still to be worked out, but the aid is to be monitored — always an important and contentious element — to ensure that it goes to the most needy and is not diverted to the military. The aid will also be delivered over an extended period of time, most likely a year or so.

The arrangement — “action for action” — in the parlance of documents that were produced in previous rounds of multilateral talks not only reveals the chasm that separates the diplomats of the two countries but also shows the delicate tightrope that the Obama administration walked as it struggles to ensure that food aid and nuclear issues remain unlinked.

This announcement is no breakthrough. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the arrangement “a modest first step in the right direction.” The IAEA said North Korea’s agreement to accept the return of agency inspectors kicked out in 2009 is “an important step forward.”

The shortcomings are plain. North Korea’s readiness to shut down and let the IAEA monitor the Yongbyon facility does not address the more important issue of other, secret facilities where it is enriching uranium. Pyongyang’s failure to provide a complete list of its nuclear facilities and inventory was one reason for the breakdown of the six-party talks in 2009.

More significantly, Pyongyang has shown no real inclination either to address with seriousness its obligation to denuclearize or to indicate even the willingness to engage its other diplomatic partners in the region, Japan and South Korea in particular.

Both have expressed support for the announcement, although there remains concern in Seoul that this marks progress in North Korea’s long-standing effort to create a relationship with Washington that marginalizes South Korea. (Seoul is divided on such matters: It wants Pyongyang engaged to undermine North Korea’s proclivity for provocations, but it also fears that a direct U.S.-North Korea dialogue will derail North-South discussions.)

Last week’s announcement reveals little about a “new” North Korea or the leadership of Mr. Kim Jong Un. It does not herald a shift in thinking in Pyongyang, nor a new openness and readiness to engage the West. The U.S. and North Korea were holding discussions on food aid in December when North Korea’s long-standing leader Kim Jong Il died, and many observers had anticipated a deal of this sort before his death.

This agreement, then, looks like a continuation of the policy line set in place by the deceased leader. And with 2012 — the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il Sung (the founder of the nation and Mr. Kim Jong Un’s grandfather) — marked as the year in which North Korea would emerge as “a rich and prosperous nation,” a deal that results in food aid for the beleaguered nation helps consolidate the new leadership and shows the new leader as a worthy successor. Mr. Glyn Davies, the lead negotiator for the U.S., noted, “There was nothing stylistically or substantively dramatically different in terms of how the North Koreans were presenting their position.”

The door is open to future negotiations. All hope is for a resumption of the six-party talks. But expectations must be tempered. While the 2005 Chairman’s Statement commits North Korea to denuclearization, no one expects Pyongyang to give up its nuclear arsenal. It is seen as both a legacy of the Kim Jong Il era and a guarantor of North Korean sovereignty — at least in North Korean eyes after the invasion of Iraq and the regime change in Libya. Nevertheless, the world must remain engaged to probe for opportunities as well as demonstrate that blame for a lack of progress would fall on Pyongyang’s shoulders.

In Beijing, the U.S. and North Korea also discussed the abduction of Japanese nationals by North Korean agents. Japan should seek to hold bilateral talks with North Korea to resolve the abduction issue and lay the groundwork for the eventual normalization of bilateral ties. Insisting on esolution of the abduction issue as a precondition for starting talks would be counterproductive.

As ever, skepticism, caution and patience remain the guiding principles when engaging Pyongyang.