North Korea to stop nuclear projects in exchange for food

Thu, Mar 1, 2012, 00:00

NORTH KOREA has agreed to halt its nuclear weapons programme in exchange for food aid – a surprise breakthrough in the first talks with the secretive state since the death of veteran leader Kim Jong-il.

A statement was issued simultaneously by North Korea’s official KCNA news agency in Pyongyang and by the state department in Washington yesterday.

“To improve the atmosphere for dialogue and demonstrate its commitment to denuclearisation, the DPRK has agreed to implement a moratorium on long-range missile launches, nuclear tests, and nuclear activities at Yongbyon, including uranium-enrichment activities,” the state department said, using the North’s official name, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

North Korea will also allow inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN nuclear watchdog, to verify and monitor the moratorium on uranium-enrichment activities at the Yongbyon plant and confirm the disablement of the reactor.

While the news counts as a major development in securing peace on the peninsula, there have been breakthroughs before, only for North Korea to pull back on agreements when tensions ratcheted higher.

Few analysts had expected any movement on the nuclear issue so soon after the ascent to power of Kim Jong-il’s young and untested son, Kim Jong-un.

The news was welcomed by President Barack Obama, and the US said it was ready to prepare final details of a proposed aid package of 240,000 tons of food, and that more food aid could be agreed if needed.

North Korea suffered a major famine in the 1990s and has been close to collapse on several occasions in recent years. It is largely propped up by help from its neighbour, China, but UN sanctions following a series of nuclear tests have bitten deeply.

The announcement follows negotiations in Beijing last week between US and North Korean envoys, the first since dialogue was suspended after Kim’s death in December from a heart attack.

The Beijing negotiations are aimed at laying the groundwork for renewed six-party disarmament negotiations, involving both North and South Korea, the US, China, Japan and Russia. Relations between North and South Korea have deteriorated badly in the past two years, after a series of attacks on the South in 2010.

A year earlier, North Korea renounced a previous deal reached in six-party talks, kicked out IAEA inspectors and accused the Obama administration of hostility.

Against this backdrop of volatility, the US response was cautious.

“The United States still has profound concerns regarding North Korean behaviour across a wide range of areas, but today’s announcement reflects important, if limited, progress in addressing some of these,” state department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.

Pyongyang has long believed that the US wants to invade the North, and it views annual joint naval exercises between the US and South Korea as a hostile act.

The state department statement showed an awareness of the sensitivities in Pyongyang to any signs of hostile intent.

The US “is prepared to take steps to improve our bilateral relationship in the spirit of mutual respect for sovereignty and equality”, it said.