Caution needed on nuclear pact

Caution needed on nuclear pact

March 2nd, 2012 in Opinion Times

The United States, Russia and China are rarely in accord on international issues, but North Korea's agreement -- negotiated by U.S. diplomats -- to suspend its nuclear program in return for food aid has united the trio in common cause, at least for the moment. Each views the pact, announced Wednesday, as a highly positive step. They are correct to view it in that light.

That said, caution should remain the byword. North Korea previously has agreed to suspend uranium enrichment, to stop nuclear and long-range missile tests and to allow international inspectors to visit the nation's most important nuclear facility. None of those agreements were honored. This time, though, there are reasons to suspect otherwise.

North Korea desperately needs food. Though it is impossible to confirm, there are reliable reports that starvation and related deaths are widespread in North Korea. It is significant, too, that the agreement was made with Kim Jong Un, the son who recently assumed power after the death of his father, Kim Jong Il. Diplomats say the elder Kim routinely rejected such a deal.

No one knows much about the new ruler, but so far he seems less truculent and more adaptable than his father. There has been an occasional outburst that seems to be tailored for a domestic audience rather than an international one. Yet the younger Kim still has managed a smooth transition of power, built what appears to be a cordial bond with the military -- the real power in North Korea -- and quietly worked to restore global relationships. The nuclear agreement is the welcome fruit of the latter.

The pact is useful only if is properly implemented. Even if it is, there's concern in some circles that the agreement is too narrow and that U.S. food aid will be used improperly. The latter has happened previously. The United States suspended food shipments to North Korea in 2009 when it became obvious that it was being distributed to the military and government elite, rather than the general public.

If the just announced pact is to have meaning, then, it will have to be fleshed out. Future talks must address issues not covered in the current agreement, i.e. what will happen to any nuclear weaponry North Korea currently possesses, and what to do about that nation's dangerous export of nuclear technology and military equipment. North Korea's agreement to immediately start talks on those and related subjects with other members of the Big Six -- the United States, Russia, China, Japan and South Korea -- would signal that the new pact is the beginning of substantive negotiations rather than an isolated diplomatic achievement of little long-term value.

Given past history, international skepticism about North Korea's current motives is understandable. Still, any agreement -- like Wednesday's -- that might reduce nuclear proliferation and lead to a more stable Korean Peninsula is at least a first step in the right direction.