North Korea and the United States announced Wednesday the outcome of talks between the two countries held in Beijing on Feb. 23-24. The two sides reached an agreement that commits North Korea to a moratorium on missile and nuclear tests, as well as nuclear work (including uranium enrichment) at the Yongbyon facility, and allows the return of International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors to that facility. In return, the United States agreed to provide 240,000 metric tons of food aid, with the potential for more, and committed itself to discuss the possible lifting of sanctions in the future. Both Pyongyang and Washington were cautious in their statements. They refrained from calling the agreement a breakthrough and suggested the talks represent just one point in an ongoing dialogue between the two sides.
The agreement, which was reached just two months after the death of former North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, paves the way for the resumption of the Six Party talks on North Korean denuclearization — stalled since the end of 2007 — and marks the first substantive step in Pyongyang-Washington relations in years. The caution with which both sides are shaping the progress reflects a more realistic engagement process, and the speed with which the agreements were made and announced shows that the sides had already neared an understanding by the time they entered the recent Beijing meeting. In its statement, in fact, Pyongyang noted that the Beijing talks (which North Korea made sure to note were requested by Washington, not by Pyongyang) were a continuation of bilateral talks held in July and October 2011.
Washington's low-key announcement, paired with official remarks describing the agreement as a small step, and with acknowledgments of the many concerns remaining with North Korea, appeared to mirror the way Washington resumed diplomatic ties with Myanmar. It was a quiet foreign policy victory — if the administration of President Barack Obama played it up strongly, the deal could invite criticism by Republican presidential contenders, who might call it too lenient in Pyongyang's regard. By not overhyping the progress, administration officials might avoid much of the domestic politicking that can quickly derail discussions with a “rogue” nation like North Korea, particularly in an election year.
For Pyongyang, the agreement demonstrates a continuity of leadership and direction in North Korea. The talks with the United States were begun under the guidance of Kim Jong Il, and are being followed through under the leadership of Kim Jong Un. This traces a similar pattern to the U.S.-DPRK nuclear talks in 1994, which continued despite Kim Il Sung’s death in June and by the end of October saw the signing of the Agreed Framework. The agreement with Washington, the promised food aid, and the likelihood of renewed Six Party talks also gives Pyongyang some breathing room. The agreement reduces potential pressure from the United States for regime change at a critical time, as Kim Jong Un is seeking to assert his authority (and establish his legitimacy) and as the North Korean elite are rebalancing their positions in the power structure.
But while the announcement was greeted positively by Beijing, China may be the most concerned about seeing progress in U.S.-North Korea relations. As China looks at the Asia-Pacific theater, it sees its own interests and sphere of influence growing, but simultaneously sees the United States “re-engaging” East Asia, and thus reasserting its own interests and influence. China saw the recent U.S. overtures to Myanmar, for example, as part of a concerted strategy to contain China’s influence and as a potential threat to Chinese energy security plans. The Myanmar move started cautiously and with little apparent intent for a wholesale change on the issue of diplomatic recognition, but moved forward more swiftly than Beijing expected. China is now seeing Washington strike a deal with the North Koreans. Although it is but a small step at this moment, Beijing wants to ensure that its influence on Pyongyang, and China's ability to exploit North Korea’s behavior and isolation, do not suffer.
Like any deal with North Korea, there is reason to be skeptical about the arrangement's longevity. Pyongyang has made it clear this is only a moratorium on testing and nuclear enrichment, and that it will only last as long as high-level talks between North Korea and the United States continue. Washington has said it will consider future food aid, cultural exchanges and potential changes to the sanctions regime only if there is continued progress in the denuclearization process. But what both sides have done, at least temporarily, is reduce tensions surrounding North Korea. They have given some space to the North Korean regime during its transition, and may have shaped the issue, in elections in South Korea and the United States, to favor those advocating dialogue over those advocating regime change or confrontation.