(CNSNews.com) – News that North Korea has pledged to suspend uranium enrichment and nuclear and long-range missile tests in return for U.S. food aid is drawing a cautious – and skeptical – reaction, given Pyongyang’s record of breaching previous such agreements.
“Throw another North Korea nuclear promise onto the pile,” ran the headline on a Republican Policy Committee blog post.
“Today’s agreement with North Korea sounds a lot like the failed agreements of the past,” said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “We have bought this bridge several times before.”
“If you’re hearing a little bit of snark in my tone, it’s because we’ve been on this road trip before with N.K.” commented Danielle Pletka, vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. “They’ve never abided by, no joke, a single agreement. But they’ve pulled the wool over the eyes of successive administrations …”
In 1994, 2005 and 2007, North Korea made far-reaching promises, variously, to shut down, mothball or “disable” nuclear facilities in return for aid, the provision of alternative energy supplies, and moves towards normalizing ties with the U.S.
Despite receiving concessions in the form of economic aid, heavy oil shipments, help with building two civilian light-water reactors to help meet its energy needs, and removal from the U.S. list of terror-sponsors, North Korea each time failed to comply with its side of the deal – or complied for a time before violating the agreement, either covertly or openly.
In late 2002, having been caught cheating on its obligations under the 1994 Agreed Framework by pursuing a clandestine uranium-enrichment program, it expelled International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors who were monitoring its nuclear reactor in Yongbyon, allowed them back in June 2007, restricted their activity in November 2008, and finally expelled them again in April 2009. They have not been back since.
Pyongyang carried out nuclear weapons tests in October 2006 and again in May 2009, and in July 2006 and April 2009 test fired intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) designed to fly up to 3,700 miles, thus in theory bringing Alaska into range.
In January last year, then Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned that North Korea was within five years of being able to reach the continental U.S. with an ICBM.
Pyongyang’s provocations were not restricted to the United States. In March 2010 it targeted its U.S.-backed southern neighbor, sinking a South Korean warship and killing 46 sailors. A deadly artillery attack on the South 10 months later further upped tensions on the peninsula. Meanwhile, six-country talks aimed at resolving the standoff have been stalled since 2009.
With that history, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was wary Wednesday in describing prospects for the new agreement.
“The United States, I will be quick to add, still has profound concerns, but on the occasion of Kim Jong-il’s death [in December], 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,” she told lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
“Today’s announcement represents a modest first step in the right direction,” Clinton added. “We, of course, will be watching closely and judging North Korea’s new leaders by their actions.”
Looking beyond Yongbyon
In the deal, announced separately by the State Department and the North Korean foreign ministry through the regime’s KCNA news agency, the U.S. has agreed to provide North Korea with 240,000 metric tons of food.
North Korea has agreed to suspend uranium-enrichment at Yongbyon, implement a moratorium on long-range missile launches and nuclear tests, and admit IAEA inspectors to monitor and confirm Yongyon’s “disablement.”
The North Korean statement included a qualification, saying these steps would be taken “while productive dialogues continue.” That phrase did not appear in the U.S. statement.
A senior administration official in a briefing Wednesday played down the significance of those words.
“When they say that the moratorium will only be in place as long as we’re engaged in these meaningful talks, I think that that’s true of how North Korea acts and behaves under any circumstances anyway,” the official said.
One element of the new agreement immediately raising questions is the fact it refers only to facilities at Yongbyon. The complex, some 60 miles north of Pyongyang, houses a plutonium-based, five-megawatt graphite-moderated reactor and an associated reprocessing plant and nuclear fuel rod fabrication facility.
But North Korea is widely suspected of having additional, unrevealed nuclear facilities.
“North Korea’s promise to suspend certain nuclear activities can’t be taken at face value, given the almost certain existence of several undeclared nuclear facilities,” said Ros-Lehtinen. “Pyongyang will likely continue its clandestine nuclear weapons program right under our noses.”
“The agreement requires North Korea only to accept IAEA inspectors at the Yongbyon nuclear facility,” noted Bruce Klingner, senior research fellow in the Asian Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation, in a brief.
“Pyongyang’s November 2010 disclosure of an extensive uranium enrichment program at Yongbyon, which was relocated from another location, shows that there are additional covert nuclear sites that should be subject to verification in any subsequent agreements,” he said.
‘Hostile intent’ and hostile rhetoric
Appearing in both statements, with slightly different wording, is a U.S. reaffirmation that it harbors “no hostile intent towards” North Korea. (North Korea’s statement said the U.S. reaffirmed that it “no longer has hostile intent.”)
There was no reciprocal North Korean affirmation of no hostile intent towards the U.S., although its statement did say elsewhere that both sides affirmed “that it is in mutual interest to ensure peace and stability on the Korean peninsula, [and] improve the relations between the DPRK and the U.S.”
DPRK stands for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the North’s official name.
One early sign of Pyongyang’s sincerity may be an easing in the belligerent rhetoric it traditionally directs at America. As recently as Tuesday, KCNA disseminated at least three items highly critical of the U.S., describing it as an “arch criminal” with “unlimited ambition to dominate the world through aggression and war.”
“The U.S. imperialists stake the destiny of the Asia-Pacific strategy on putting the peninsula under their control,” said a commentary in the regime’s mouthpiece Rodong Sinmun. “That is why they are keen to invade the DPRK by force of arms and occupy the whole of Korea and, furthermore, dominate Asia and the world.”