N. Korea Agrees to Nuclear Halt

Peter Crail

North Korea has agreed to suspend uranium enrichment and to implement moratoriums on nuclear and long-range missile tests, Department of State spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in a Feb. 29 statement.

A North Korean Foreign Ministry statement carried by the state-run Korean Central News Agency the same day said Pyongyang agreed to the steps “with a view to maintaining [a] positive atmosphere” for high-level talks between the two countries, and that it would continue to refrain from such activities “while productive dialogues continue.” The United States and its allies have called on North Korea to suspend enrichment, nuclear tests, and long-range missile tests as conditions for restarting multilateral talks on North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

The agreement comes on the heels of the first formal meeting between U.S. and North Korean officials since the death of long-time North Korean leader Kim Jong Il last December.

After the Feb. 23-24 meeting in Beijing, U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Policy Glyn Davies told reporters that the two sides “made a little bit of progress,” calling North Korea’s willingness to meet with the United States “relatively soon” after its leadership transition a positive development. Davies rejected the idea that the talks made a breakthrough, however. “I think the word breakthrough goes way too far,” he told reporters.

Kim Jong Il’s third son, Kim Jong Un, was formally declared the country’s new leader Dec. 29.

According to Davies, the talks covered a wide range of issues, including nonproliferation, human rights, and food assistance. Nuland said in her Feb. 29 statement the United States is working with North Korea to provide 240,000 metric tons of food assistance under “intensive monitoring.”

Davies pointed out that, despite North Korea’s leadership change, his North Korean counterpart, Vice Foreign Minister Kim Gye Gwan, has been Pyongyang’s lead nuclear negotiator for many years.

“He’s one of the veterans of the six-party process, and many of the officials on his side had been involved previously in these talks, so I didn’t have sitting across the table from me a new cast or a new set of officials,” Davies said. The meeting originally was scheduled to last for a single day, but the two countries extended it to a second day.

The U.S.-North Korean discussions were the third session since Pyongyang backed out of multilateral talks on its nuclear program in 2009. The two countries, as well as the other four participants in the so-called six-party talks—China, Japan, Russia, and South Korea—have called for a resumption of negotiations. Efforts to resume talks were disrupted by Kim Jong Il’s death Dec. 17.

Since efforts to resume the six-party talks intensified last year, the United States and its allies have stipulated that North Korea must first take steps to demonstrate its willingness to abandon its nuclear weapons program. Those requirements have included suspending operations at a uranium-enrichment plant Pyongyang publicly revealed in 2010 and instituting nuclear and missile test moratoriums.

North Korea has traditionally relied on plutonium production for its nuclear weapons program but U.S. officials have expressed concerns for over a decade that Pyongyang has sought to enrich uranium as another source of nuclear weapons material. North Korea first publicly admitted to pursuing uranium enrichment in 2009 when it left the six-party talks.

For several months, Pyongyang indicated that it was willing to suspend enrichment and refrain from nuclear and long-range missile tests, but only in the context of a resumed six-party process, rather than as a precondition. North Korea had also raised the delivery of food aid as a possible precondition for resuming negotiations on its nuclear program.

In her statement, Nuland also said that Pyongyang agreed to allow International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors to return to verify the suspension of nuclear activities at its Yongbyong complex. That nuclear complex houses the uranium-enrichment plant North Korea revealed in 2010 as well as a nuclear reactor that was partially dismantled as part of a previous round of six-party negotiations in 2007 and 2008. The IAEA also will “confirm the disablement” of that five-megawatt reactor, Nuland said Feb. 29.

As part of the Feb. 23-24 discussions with North Korea, the United States also appears to have made a series of political gestures to North Korea under its new leadership. Nuland said the United States “reaffirms that it does not have hostile intent toward” Pyongyang, and that U.S. sanctions are “not targeted against the livelihood” of the North Korean people. Nuland also said in her statement that the United States is prepared to increase cultural, education, and sports exchanges with North Korea.