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North Korea Agrees to Curb Nuclear Work - U.S. Offers Aid

Kim Jong-un met with soldiers from the Korean People’s Army in southwestern North Korea in February. North Korea agreed to suspend nuc...

Kim Jong-un met with soldiers from the Korean People’s Army in southwestern North Korea in February.

North Korea agreed to suspend nuclear weapons tests and uranium enrichment and allow international inspectors to monitor activities at its main nuclear complex, the North’s official news agency and the State Department announced on Wednesday. The promises could end years of a standoff that has allowed the North’s nuclear program to continue with no international oversight and are part of a deal that included an American pledge to ship food aid to the isolated, impoverished nation.

Although the Obama administration called the steps “important, if limited,” they signaled that the country’s new leader, Kim Jong-un, is willing to at least engage with the United States. Administration officials have been watching closely to see if he would resort to military provocations to establish his reputation following the death of his father, Kim Jong-il, late last year.

North Korea also agreed on a moratorium on launchings of long-range missiles, which have in the past raised military tensions with South Korea and Japan.

North Korea has agreed in the past to halt its nuclear program only to back out, demanding more concessions or accusing the United States of reneging on its obligations. And the statement Tuesday from the North’s official Korean Central News Agency appeared to give the country’s leaders wiggle room again this time, saying that Pyongyang would carry out the agreement “as long as talks proceed fruitfully.”

Still, North Korea’s agreement to allow inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency to return to the country appeared to be a significant concession. After years of negotiations, North Korea expelled inspectors and went on to test nuclear devices in 2006 and 2009. American intelligence officials believe the country has enough fuel already for six to eight weapons.

If the North lives up to its agreement to stop uranium enrichment, it could help ease some anxieties in Washington over the program at a time when the administration, in an election year, is consumed with halting Iran’s nuclear program before Israel decides to stage an attack.

For the relatively young and inexperienced Mr. Kim, the agreement could be crucial to solidifying his hold on power and the backing of the powerful military, analysts in South Korea said. He needs to show in the early months of his rule that he is improving people’s lives after years of food shortages and a devastating famine. Bringing in 240,000 metric tons of food aid from the United States will surely help.

The timing is also important for Mr. Kim, analysts said, because his father had declared this would be a breakout year for North Korea, when its economy would take off and the country would stage elaborate national celebrations. The celebrations will mark the 100-year anniversary of the birth of Kim Il-sung, the nation’s founder and Kim Jong-un’s grandfather.

Food aid — and better international relations that could lead to economic support — are considered critical for the country’s leaders to be able to stage the celebrations with the lavishness their people have come to expect.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, speaking at a House Appropriations Committee hearing, expressed cautious optimism.

“The United States, I will be quick to add, still has profound concerns,” she said. “But on the occasion of Kim Jong-Il’s death, 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. Today’s announcement represents a modest first step in the right direction.”

She added that the United States will be watching closely and judging North Korea’s new leaders by their actions.

Two days of talks in Beijing last week between the United States and North Korea initially appeared to have produced few concrete results. But after the North Korean negotiators returned home, the country’s leaders responded positively to American offers to resume international negotiations — and deliver the food aid — provided the country agreed to the steps announced on Wednesday.

In a statement, the State Department said that in exchange, the United States was “prepared to take steps to improve our bilateral relationship in the spirit of mutual respect for sovereignty and equality” and to allow cultural, educational and sports exchanges with North Korea.

Officially, the Obama administration has refused to link food aid directly to progress in talks, saying that should be decided purely on humanitarian grounds. But American officials said they relented after the North Koreans insisted on the aid being part of any agreement. The State Department’s announcement did not say when the moratorium would begin, when international inspectors would return to North Korea or when the so-called six-party talks would resume between North Korea, South Korea, the United States, China, Russia and Japan.

Wednesday’s agreement only sets a potential stage for restarting the six-nation talks. Much tougher negotiations lie ahead if and when the multilateral talks begin to discuss the terms of permanently ending the north’s nuclear programs.



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