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North Korea Agrees to Nuclear Test Halt in U.S. Talks

Hillary Clinton, U.S. secretary of state. Photographer: Ramin Talaie/Bloomberg
Hillary Clinton, U.S. secretary of state. Photographer: Ramin Talaie/Bloomberg

March 1 (Bloomberg) -- North Korea agreed to a moratorium on nuclear tests and long-range missile launches in an accord with the U.S. that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called a “modest step in the right direction.”

The government in Pyongyang will also halt uranium enrichment at its facility in Yongbyon and permit verification by international inspectors, according to statements released yesterday by both countries. Further talks will be held on implementing the terms, which also call for the U.S. to provide food aid to North Korea.

The accord came out of talks between the U.S. and North Korea in Beijing on Feb. 23 and Feb. 24, the first since dictator Kim Jong Il died in December and his son, Kim Jong Un, inherited leadership of the impoverished, nuclear-armed country.

The new leader is following the “exact playbook” of alternating confrontations and negotiations established by his father and his grandfather, Kim Il Sung, according to David Maxwell, associate director of the Center for Peace and Security Studies at Georgetown University in Washington.

“I do not see this as any kind of change or breakthrough,” Maxwell said yesterday in an interview, adding that North Korea was angling for food aid.

The U.S. agreed to make final plans to provide an initial 240,000 metric tons of food aid, to be provided in 20,000-ton increments every month for a year, with the “prospect of additional assistance based on continued need,” according to a State Department statement.

North Korea’s Foreign Ministry said yesterday in an e-mailed statement that the talks “offered a venue for sincere and in-depth discussion” of measures to build confidence and improve relations.

South Korea Reaction

South Korea, which is still technically at war with the North since their 1950-53 conflict ended without a peace treaty, welcomed the announcement and expects the agreements will be “faithfully carried out,” according to a foreign ministry statement on its website.

Yesterday’s agreement is “a basis to further its efforts to comprehensively and fundamentally resolve the North Korean nuclear issue,” the ministry said.

The Obama administration “still has profound concerns” about North Korea, Clinton told a House Appropriations subcommittee yesterday.

“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,” Clinton said. “We, of course, will be watching closely and judging North Korea’s new leaders by their actions,” Clinton said.

IAEA Inspections

North Korea agreed to permit the return of International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors to verify and monitor the moratorium on uranium enrichment activities at the facility in Yongbyon and confirm that the five-megawatt reactor and associated facilities are being disabled, according to the State Department.

North Korea said it will allow the monitoring “while productive dialogues continue.” The country’s chief nuclear envoy, Ri Yong Ho, will visit the U.S. next week and may meet State Department officials, South Korea’s Hankyoreh newspaper reported, citing an unidentified person in Washington.

The U.S. expects tough negotiations on the timing of the food aid and the IAEA inspections, according to a State Department official who briefed reporters.

The Obama administration won’t start providing the aid until groups to distribute it are in full operation to ensure the help isn’t directed to the military or North Korea’s elite, according to a second State Department official.

Aid Details

The official said the U.S. has chosen aid intended to benefit young children and pregnant women. Some ready-to-eat meals would be made available to children suffering from malnutrition, the official said. Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity about the private negotiations.

Republican U.S. lawmakers criticized the Obama administration for the terms it accepted.

“Years of getting duped by North Korea should tell us that verification on their turf is extremely difficult, if not impossible,” Representative Ed Royce, chairman of a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee, said in an e-mailed statement. “That applies to food aid distribution, where the military has stolen food aid, or nuclear disarmament.”

Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona said the administration “is effectively violating long-standing U.S. policy not to link North Korean denuclearization commitments to food aid.”

‘Important Step’

U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague considers the agreement “an important step,” according to a statement from his office. “Recent changes in the North Korean leadership provide an opportunity for renewed engagement with the international community.” Japanese Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba in a e-mailed statement welcomed the move, while saying North Korea “must take concrete action toward denuclearization.”

Analysts in the U.S. debated whether the announcement represented movement by North Korea under its new leader.

“This could be one of the more significant diplomatic surprises of the year,” George Lopez, a former United Nations sanctions investigator now at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, said yesterday in an e-mail. “Very few analysts believed that anything of substance would happen in the first few months after Kim Jong Un came to power.”

John Park, a fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, said yesterday’s deal had been scheduled for December and was postponed upon Kim Jong Il’s death. Its revival is significant as a sign of continuity, Park said.

‘Baseline Understanding’

“It provides something of a baseline understanding with the new leadership in Pyongyang,” he said.

The agreement to halt nuclear activities at Yongbyon doesn’t affect work North Korea may be conducting elsewhere, according to Marcus Noland, deputy director of the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.

“The working assumption is that there are other facilities scattered in unknown locations and this agreement doesn’t stop them from that,” he said.

Noland, author of “Avoiding the Apocalypse: The Future of the Two Koreas,” called it significant that North Korea agreed to the amount of food aid offered by the U.S., saying Kim Jong Il had demanded 330,000 tons.

“The fact that they’ve accepted the U.S. position of 240,000 metric tons is an important indicator that there is somebody in charge,” Noland said. “Maybe it’s Kim Jong Un, a collective and maybe Jang Song Thaek,” the new leader’s uncle, he said.

Six-Party Talks

North Korea’s foreign ministry said the discussions in Beijing offered an opportunity for the resumption of six-party talks, which haven’t been held since December 2008. The six-nation forum is aimed at ending North Korea’s nuclear program through negotiations that also involve China, the U.S., Japan, Russia and South Korea.

The Beijing meetings were the third since the U.S. resumed direct talks with North Korea in efforts to bring the country back to the negotiations. China, North Korea’s main ally, will take “proactive steps” and continue to push for the six-party talks, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said today in a statement on the ministry’s website.

In October, Kim Jong Il said North Korea was ready to restart the talks as long as they occurred without preconditions. The U.S. State Department said in August that North Korea must refrain from nuclear testing and missile launches and meet other conditions before the talks can resume. The North revealed its uranium-enrichment program in 2010.

To contact the reporters on this story: Roxana Tiron in Washington at; Nicole Gaouette in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: John Walcott at

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