Leap Day in North Korea

Barack Obama's nuclear deal with Pyongyang is a modest success. But let's not get carried away.


When North Korean leader Kim Jong Il died late last year, analysts had no clear idea what the accession of his youngest son, Kim Jong Un, might mean for the Hermit Kingdom. On Feb. 29 this leap year — appropriately enough — we got an initial hint, when Pyongyang agreed to suspend work at the state-of-the-art uranium-enrichment plant at Yongbyon that it had suddenly revealed to a visiting U.S. nuclear scientist in November 2010, to halt nuclear and missile tests, and to allow inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency back into the country after a three-year absence. The new deal with the United States, concluded in exchange for 240,000 tons of food aid, will not eradicate the North Korean threat. It augurs well, however, for Kim Jong Un’s foreign-policy smarts and will be seen internationally as a diplomatic victory for U.S. President Barack Obama.

The deal is no permanent solution because Pyongyang retains enough plutonium for four to 12 atomic bombs (with so many unknown variables, a more exact calculation is impossible). It is also presumed to be capable of producing more weapons using highly enriched uranium (HEU) at hidden facilities. North Korea has rebuffed Washington’s demands to reveal the full scale of its enrichment program, but the 2,000-centrifuge uranium-enrichment plant at Yongbyon — whose size and sophistication left visiting Stanford University professor Siegfried Hecker "stunned" in 2010 — was capable of producing a weapon’s worth of HEU every year. Pyongyang has now relinquished that potential production.

North Korea’s agreement to suspend nuclear and missile tests is also significant. Its two nuclear tests and three tests of medium-range ballistic missiles have all failed to one degree or another, so military leaders presumably want to conduct more to get the technology right. Kim will have less power to resist such military demands. Luckily for him, his father authorized negotiations with the United States that began shortly before the elder Kim’s death in late December. After a hiatus for mourning, the talks resumed in February before producing this leap day’s agreement.

This would be good news under any circumstances, but it is especially positive so soon after Kim came to power. Much media coverage has been devoted to the new leader’s hands-on, smiley style in his inspection visits to military units and industrial sites, but this doesn’t tell us much. In concluding this deal, however, he has parlayed Kim Jong Il’s last diplomatic venture into his own success. He can justify his actions by saying he finished something his father began — acting under his father’s guidance — while pulling an unexpected result out of the hat. This gives reason to hope that the military provocations that put the Korean Peninsula on the brink of war in 2010 may not be repeated this year.

The Obama administration is right in calling the agreement "important, if limited," but it is the first positive development in North Korea’s program in four years. Undoubtedly, Republicans will find fault with the deal’s level of transparency and the lack of any dismantlement of objectionable nuclear facilities. Questions will also be raised about who will benefit from the 240,000 tons of "nutritional assistance," the package’s most controversial element.

Precautions have been taken to try to prevent this food aid from supplementing the rations of North Korea’s disproportionately sized army — at 1.2 million strong, the world’s fourth-largest — or being dished out at celebrations to mark the centenary of the birth of North Korea’s founding father, Kim Il Sung, on April 15. High-protein supplements will be delivered rather than grain, and nearly 100 Korean-speaking American aid workers will monitor their distribution. No degree of oversight, however, can ensure that all the assistance will end up in the mouths of those most in need.

Tying food aid to policy choices presents moral complications. If people are starving, humanitarian principles hold that lifesaving assistance should not be used as a bargaining chip for political purposes. In this case, however, conditional food aid, in addition to benefiting some starving North Koreans, can contribute to the greater good of all countries in the region and beyond by reducing tensions and stopping advances in North Korea’s strategic weapons systems. Without a moratorium on nuclear and missile tests, Pyongyang may soon be able to threaten civilians in South Korea and Japan with a nuclear strike.

If the six-party talks are resumed, as now seems more likely after this deal, the United States and its Asian allies will seek full disclosure and dismantlement of the enrichment facilities so that North Korea’s nuclear status can be restored to the status quo ante-2008, when all denuclearization steps were halted over disagreement on verification measures. Let’s not get too excited: The requirements for strict verification could still scuttle the leap-day agreement. And despite the suspension steps, North Korea is highly unlikely to give up its nuclear weapons altogether. Yet after four years of mounting tension on the Korean Peninsula, one good day for diplomacy is worth celebrating.

Mark Fitzpatrick is the executive director of the International Institute of Strategic Studies–Americas and the head of the IISS nonproliferation and nuclear policy program. Twitter: @FitzpatrickIISS

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