North Korea Nuclear Suspension: Diplomatic Coup for Obama, but No Rapid Change Expected

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U.S. officials cautiously welcomed the news on Wednesday that North Korea has agreed to a moratorium on long-range missile launches, nuclear tests and nuclear activities, including uranium enrichment, at its Yongbyon facility. The deal will also allow International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors back into the country. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called it a “modest step” in testimony before the House Appropriations Committee on the State Department budget Wednesday. But most diplomats warned not to expect a sudden opening of North Korea any time soon.

The agreement comes less than a week after U.S. and North Korean officials met in Beijing for the third time since July. That meeting had been scheduled for December but the death of North Korea’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong Il delayed it. There had been some concerns that the succession of his son, 29-year-old Kim Jong Un, might derail or alter the talks, especially after North Korean put out a press release demanding 300,000 tons of food aid, well in excess of the 240,000 tons that had been on the table. But the mantra of Kim-the-younger’s transition has been continuity. And much of the agreement announced on Wednesday had already been in place before Kim-the-elder’s death, including the final figure of 240,000 tons of food aid targeted with monitoring at mostly vulnerable populations like children, the elderly and nursing mothers. In the 300,000 request, Pyongyang had asked for half to food to come in grain so it could go to feed, say, an army or the country’s elite.

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As part of the agreement, the U.S. also reaffirmed it does not have hostile intentions toward North Korea, pledged to abide by previous armistices and to increase “people-to-people” exchanges to North Korea in the areas of culture, education and sports. And officials were quick to note that no steps taken today are permanent; North Korea could recoil at any time and reengage its nuclear programs. “The United States still has profound concerns regarding North Korean behavior across a wide range of areas, but today’s announcement reflects important, if limited, progress in addressing some of these,” said State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland in a statement.

The bilateral deal brings North Korea back to the table for six party talks – North and South Korea, the U.S., Russia, China and Japan – suspended after Pyongyang test launched a “satellite,” which most nations believe was actually an intercontinental ballistic missile, and kicked out IAEA inspectors in April of 2009. The U.S. has long said that a peaceful resolution to the 60-year crisis on the Korean peninsula can only come with all six countries in agreement. North Korea’s foreign ministry put out a statement affirming the deal: “The talks… offered a venue for sincere and in-depth discussion of issues concerning the measures aimed at building confidence for the improvement of relations between the DPRK and the U.S. as well as issues related with ensuring peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula and resumption of the six-party talks.”

The deal is a foreign policy coup for the Obama Administration in particular as the President, who is expected to travel to South Korea at the end of March, heads into election season. Just earlier this week GOP strategists Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie wrote in Foreign Policy Magazine that Obama is weak on the issue. “Before [Obama] was elected, he promised to meet with the leaders of Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Syria, and Venezuela ‘without precondition,’” they wrote. “Nothing came of that except a serious blow to the image of the United States as a reliable ally.”

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While it may be tempting to speculate that Kim, who spent some time in Switzerland growing up, is moving to open North Korea to the West, U.S. officials were quick to note that North Korea’s team of negotiators, led by First Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye Gwan, was virtually identical to that of the first two rounds. “There was nothing stylistically or substantively dramatically different in terms of how the North Koreans were presenting their positions,” Ambassador Glyn Davies, special representative for North Korea policy and the lead U.S. negotiator in the talks, told reporters in Beijing after the meeting. As TIME wrote in Bill Powell’s cover story on Kim earlier this month, changing the bureaucracies of North Korean’s massive union and army will take a lot more than the unknowable wishes of a 29-year-old, even if he is Supreme Leader.

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