North Korea agreed recently to suspend its nuclear activities, announcing a freeze on nuclear tests, long-range missile launches and uranium enrichment at its Yongbyon plant. It also invited back international nuclear inspectors expelled in 2009, presumably in a bid to restart the six-party talks. To better understand the significance and possible ramifications of North Korea’s announcement, we talked to James Manicom, SSHRC post-doctoral fellow at the Balsille School of International Affairs.

CIGI: This is a marked change in tone from Kim Jong Il’s rhetoric toward the West. How important is it that Kim Jong Un’s first significant act to the outside world is to strike a more conciliatory tone with the US?

James Manicom: I think what’s interesting about this is that it’s not really a change in tone, if you describe what North Korea is doing as a pattern of concession-aggression. This is continued from the Kim Jong Il era.

In mid-2011, the North Koreans requested a unilateral, unconditional return to the six-party talks, on the back of all the provocations in 2010 — the sinking of the ROKS Cheonan, the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island and, of course, the revelations about the uranium program. Instead, American and North Korean officials met informally. There were two meetings — one in July and one in October [2011], when Kim Jong Il was still alive. They talked about some kind of deal to get access to the uranium program and allow the IAEA inspectors back in.

The Americans were not offering food aid, but the North Koreans were requesting it, and what came out of that was this aid-for-nukes deal, which really wasn’t the case from the American perspective. The United States is adamant that the nutritional aid is a humanitarian gesture and not linked with progress on denuclearization. So Kim Jong Il dies in December, fast forward to February and you have the announcement of a very tentative deal. But that is, I would argue, a continuation of things that happened before Kim Jong Il died. This should not be seen as an about-face or a new policy from Kim Jong Un.

CIGI: What does that tell us about the new regime of Kim Jong Un?

Manicom: That tells us a couple of things about the North Korean regime. It tells us that Kim Jong Un is pursuing policy continuity. We haven’t seen, so far, a radical departure in how they’re going to deal with the nuclear question with the United States.

As to whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing in the long term is hard to say. Typically, when there’s a change in leadership in authoritarian countries, you tend to worry about radical policy departures that come from internal squabbles for power and influence. This deal might suggest that the succession has gone smoothly. If you’re the United States, this is a sign to you that they’re going to continue to play the same game and you can bring the same set of assumptions to the table as you usually do.

CIGI: Given North Korea’s history of reneging on similar commitments, including as recently as three years ago, there will be natural skepticism in the international community. Is there anything significantly different in North Korea’s assurances this time to suggest this isn’t merely a stalling tactic?

Manicom: I wouldn’t attach too much significance to this deal. The deal is significant in that in January we didn’t have one and now we do. But it should be greeted with all of the appropriate suspicion and hedging that you bring to a deal with North Korea.

It isn’t even written on paper. This is an exchange of two unilateral statements that are different in a couple of ways. The United States pledges 240,000 metric tonnes of nutritional aid, with the possibility of more as needed. The US has been trying to give nutritional assistance to North Korea for a long time, but they obviously cut off food aid after the second nuclear test. Food aid in the form of rice can be diverted to the military. Nutritional aid is less likely to be diverted as it is intended to feed the truly destitute segments of a society.

A second important difference in the statements is that the US is expecting IAEA access to North Korea’s stated uranium program. The North Korean statement says thing like “it will lead to a resumption of talks,” but the US statement doesn’t say that. The Americans are expecting access to and verifiable shutdown of the old Yongbyon reactor; the North Korean statement doesn’t have that.

CIGI: How significant is it that the US State Department’s statement on the developments in North Korea made no mention of the six-party talks — with South Korea, China, Japan and Russia — aimed at a full denuclearization in North Korea?

Manicom: I think it’s significant in that it’s consistent with their policy. They’re not going to consider a return to the six-party talks before a number of benchmarks have been met. This deal is a chance for the North Koreans to show good faith. You could certainly argue that they have had many chances to do that and have walked away.

This is a tough situation for both sides to be in because the Americans have their goal of denuclearizing the peninsula, but the nuclear program is engrained in the North Korean political economy. So you could question the feasibility of the ultimate goal of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, which they both say they want.

CIGI: What, if any, role do you think China may have had in the recent developments?

Manicom: I think it’s important, but we’ll probably never know China’s exact role. The latest round of talks, which was on the implementation of the nutritional assistance and the inspection, was in Beijing. We’re still waiting on North Korea to reach out to the IAEA.

So China’s hosting this, but it’s very difficult to tell whether China is whispering into the ear of Kim Jong Un. The North Koreans have always been independent of China. People think the Chinese have had influence , and I think they do, or at least they used to, but the North Koreans are not a client state of China. In fact, a lot of the time they’re a liability in China’s broader-reaching concerns. So the Chinese may have had a role, but there’s very little evidence right now that they were integral in this happening.

CIGI: Some observers will see this as the Obama administration’s position of “strategic patience” beginning to pay dividends, however tenuously. What’s your reading of this, particularly in light of the increased calls for the US to take unilateral action — or bilateral action with Israel — to stop Iran’s nuclear activities?

Manicom: The important difference there is we think Iran has a weapons program and we know North Korean has a bomb. There are two paths to having a nuclear weapons program — plutonium and uranium — and North Korea has both. We think the Iranians are enriching uranium with a view to building a bomb, because that’s why you enrich uranium. But unlike North Korea, which signed up for the Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) and then withdrew, Iran is still a member of the NPT, and has signed the additional protocol, which has a more intrusive inspection regime. But they still try to keep the inspectors out on occasion, which looks suspicious.

So on the basis that the two programs are at very different stages, I don’t think there a lot of takeaway lessons between the two situations, except for to say the Iranians are learning from the North Koreans. They’ll be watching this very closely.

The deal is significant in that in January we didn’t have one and now we do. But it should be greeted with all of the appropriate suspicion and hedging that you bring to a deal with North Korea.
The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.