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North Korea Pledges Halt to Uranium Enrichment, Nuclear Testing

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un waves during an appearance in Pyongyang earlier this month. North Korea has expressed willingness to suspend uranium enrichment and other atomic activities in exchange for food assistance, the Obama administration announced on Wednesday  (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder). North Korean leader Kim Jong Un waves during an appearance in Pyongyang earlier this month. North Korea has expressed willingness to suspend uranium enrichment and other atomic activities in exchange for food assistance, the Obama administration announced on Wednesday (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder).

The U.S. State Department on Wednesday said North Korea has offered concessions including a halt to uranium enrichment operations in a deal to receive food assistance from the United States (see GSN, Feb. 28).

“The D.P.R.K. has agreed to implement a moratorium on long-range missile launches, nuclear tests and nuclear activities at Yongbyon, including uranium enrichment activities,” department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in a prepared statement, using the acronym for the North's formal name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

"The D.P.R.K. has also agreed to the return of [International Atomic Energy Agency] inspectors to verify and monitor the moratorium on uranium enrichment activities at Yongbyon and confirm the disablement of the 5-megawatt reactor and associated facilities," Nuland added (U.S. State Department release, Feb. 29).

The agreement follows two days of talks last week in Beijing between senior U.S. and North Korean diplomats.

"The D.P.R.K., upon request by the U.S. and with a view to maintaining positive atmosphere for the D.P.R.K.-U.S. high-level talks, agreed to a moratorium on nuclear tests, long-range missile launches, and uranium enrichment activity at [the Yongbyon nuclear complex] and allow the IAEA to monitor the moratorium on uranium enrichment while productive dialogues continue," Reuters quoted the North's state-run Korean Central News Agency as stating (Andrew Quinn, Reuters I, Feb. 29).

The concessions offered by the North are in line with demands made by Washington and partner governments for resuming the long-stalled six-party talks on North Korean denuclearization. The negotiations, last held in December 2008, involve China, Japan, Russia, the United States and both Koreas.

Pyongyang withdrew from the process in April 2009 after being criticized for a missile test launch. Since then it has conducted a second nuclear test and unveiled the long-suspected uranium enrichment program that could be used to produce nuclear-weapon material.

“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,” Nuland stated. “We have agreed to meet with the D.P.R.K. to finalize administrative details necessary to move forward with our proposed package of 240,000 metric tons of nutritional assistance along with the intensive monitoring required for the delivery of such assistance.”

Washington during last week's talks stated its support for the September 2005 agreement under which Pyongyang agreed to denuclearization in exchange for energy aid, security pledges and additional benefits from the other nations (State Department release).

"Today's announcement represents a modest first step in the right direction," Reuters quoted U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as saying to lawmakers on Wednesday.

"It is our assessment that the basis has been set for moving forward on our efforts to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue in a comprehensive and fundamental manner," according to South Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman Cho Buyung-jae.

Independent issue experts offered cautious optimism on the development, saying the return of U.N. nuclear inspectors to North Korea after several years' absence would enable greater insight into the nation's operations at the Yongbyon atomic complex.

"This puts an element of control back on the North Koreans' nuclear development program as well as their existing capabilities that we have not had for almost four years," Charles Pritchard, who served as a U.S. special envoy on North Korea and now leads the Korea Economic Institute (Quinn, Reuters I).

"Today’s announcement is an important step toward a verifiable freeze of the most worrisome North Korean nuclear activities," Daryl Kimball, head of the Washington-based Arms Control Association, said following the announcement. "President Barack Obama and Ambassador Glyn Davies -- the U.S. point-man on the D.P.R.K. -- need to maintain the momentum in the weeks and months ahead" (Arms Control Association release, Feb. 29).

Pritchard, though, expressed doubt that the recently installed Kim Jong Un regime in Pyongyang is prepared to relinquish its nuclear deterrent.

"How does a 28-year-old give up the only legitimate piece of leverage that he has in dealing with the superpowers to preserve the survivability of his regime? He's not going to do that," he told Reuters (Quinn, Reuters I).

A senior U.S. military officer on Tuesday also played down the potential for the new leadership in North Korea to make substantial changes to its policy on nuclear weapons and other matters, Reuters reported.

Kim Jong Un became the head of state in Pyongyang following the death in December of his father, longtime dictator Kim Jong Il.

"He's a Kim, and he's surrounded by an uncle and Kim Jong Il's sister and others that I think are guiding his actions," Adm. Robert Willard, head of U.S. Pacific Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

"So in that sense, we would expect ... more of the same. The strategy has been successful through two generations," he said, referring to Kim Jong Un’s father and his grandfather, Kim Il Sung. "It wouldn't surprise us to see an effort to make the strategy work for a third."

The strategic posture of the Kim family “embraces nuclearization, missile development, WMD proliferation, provocations and totalitarian control over North Korean society,” Willard said.

There have been concerns about the strategic ramifications of a troubled transfer of power in Pyongyang. That, though, does not appear to be developing, Willard said.

"We're observing closely for signs of instability or evidence that the leadership transition is faltering," he said. "We believe Kim Jong Un to be tightly surrounded by (Kim Jong Il) associates, and for the time being the succession appears to be on course” (Eckert/Laurence, Reuters II, Feb. 29).

The admiral also noted the value of missile defense systems in countering the threat posed by North Korea, the Yonhap News Agency reported.

"North Korea's continuing pursuit of nuclear weapons and advanced ballistic missile systems places a premium on [U.S. Pacific Command] ballistic missile defenses and close cooperation with allies,” he said in a prepared statement to the panel (Yonhap News Agency I/Korea Times, Feb. 29).

A senior South Korean official, meanwhile, on Tuesday reaffirmed his government’s stand that the North must demonstrate “sincerity” regarding its willingness to shutter its nuclear arms work if the six-party talks are to resume, Yonhap reported.

"The momentum for dialogue should be maintained and we hope North Korea will demonstrate its willingness and sincerity toward denuclearization through concrete actions, thereby creating an appropriate environment for the resumption of the six-party talks," Deputy Foreign Minister Kim Bong-hyun said at the international Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, Switzerland.

"I would like to reiterate that our efforts are aimed at making substantive progress in denuclearization, not at just having talks for the sake of talks,” he added (Yonhap News Agency II/Korea Times, Feb. 29).

There is broad skepticism that North Korea would ever relinquish its nuclear arms, which it sees as a key deterrent against longtime foes South Korea and the United States.

“It’s too early to predict and judge, but I am not optimistic” that the nuclear negotiations will resume, said South Korean Ambassador to Russia Wi Sung Lac. Wi served as Seoul’s top envoy to the diplomatic effort from February 2009 to October 2011, a period during which the talks were never held.

“I think it is more difficult than before because inter-Korean relations are clogged after the passing of Kim Jong Il,” Yonhap quoted him as saying on Monday (Yonhap News Agency III/Korea Times, Feb. 27).

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