The Call

Is North Korea the next Myanmar? Hold your judgment.

Is North Korea the next Myanmar? Hold your judgment.

By Jennifer Lee

The new, young regime in North Korea surprised more than a few observers when it agreed last week to a moratorium on its nuclear activities in return for 240,000 tons of U.S. food aid so soon after Kim Jong Un assumed leadership. Instead of the legitimacy-building provocations expected from the young Kim (who is in his late 20s), the world got a measured concession from a totalitarian regime that demonstrated a degree of consensus and decision-making ability. In some ways, it was the story of the young son continuing his father Kim Jong Il’s efforts to improve relations with the U.S. prior to his death.

There is general optimism surrounding the agreement, which stalls North Korea’s uranium enrichment program, and nuclear and long-range missile tests, and allows the International Atomic Energy Agency to inspect the Yongbyon nuclear facility. Last week’s step forward, however, does not necessarily presage a more substantive shift in North Korea’s posture. The agreement allows North Korea to possibly address its immediate concerns (economic sanctions) and affect domestic politics in South Korea, without ceding its ability to provoke or flip the switch (again) on its nuclear program.

While it is easy to think that the U.S. food aid "carrot" must have been the main reason behind North Korea agreeing to this deal, it is unlikely the case. North Korea is not known for being particularly concerned about the hunger of its people (allegedly more than one million people died during the famine in the 90s, and food security has been dismal for the past few decades); and the totalitarian nature of the regime means that its leaders are not very concerned about their approval ratings.

North Korea is more concerned about the economic condition of the state and the long-term implications of sanctions (North Korea’s version of the statement mentions that it would want to discuss the lifting of sanctions and provision of light water reactors if the Six Party Talks resume). The current move is probably a gambit to see if it can resume the Six Party Talks and have sanctions lifted without giving up the nuclear program. The deal is also likely an effort by Pyongyang to slight the Lee Myung-bak administration in Seoul, which it views with hostility, in the hope of increasing the chances of the liberal parties in South Korea’s presidential election in December.

The U.S. and South Korea both have presidential elections this year. The agreement is likely North Korea’s way of buying time for a year or so until the South Korean administration changes, while trying to extract concessions from an Obama administration that does not want any more conflicts on its hands during an election year. This is also a moratorium that is to last only while "productive dialogue continues." Everything North Korea has promised is reversible if it decides to back out. And it certainly has set a precedent for doing so. Furthermore, this moratorium applies only to the Yongbyun nuclear facilities; it is widely believed that there are several other nuclear development sites throughout North Korea that will be out of reach under this agreement.

It should not be forgotten that North Korea’s nuclear capability has been extolled within North Korea as Kim Jong Il’s most important legacy. It is undoubtedly seen as the single most powerful card that North Korea has, and with the recent leadership transition to a young new leader, there is little chance that the country will completely forgo this leverage, especially after the NATO operation in Libya that removed Muammar Qaddafi.

There is still a possibility that this could turn into something positive and lasting for U/S.-North Korea relations or North Korea’s future behavior. Last week’s agreement demonstrates that the totalitarian regime in North Korea was able to take a rational step for its self-interest. But it does not demonstrate that North Korea is contemplating giving up its nuclear weapons, or that it is on the verge of changing its behavior.

Jennifer Lee is an associate in Eurasia Group’s Asia practice.