Washington North Korea raised hopes Wednesday for a major easing in nuclear tensions under its youthful new leader, agreeing to suspend uranium enrichment at a major facility and refrain from missile and nuclear tests in exchange for a mountain of critically needed U.S. food aid.
It was only a preliminary step but a necessary one to restart broader six-nation negotiations that would lay down terms for what the North could get in return for abandoning its nuclear weapons program. Pyongyang pulled out of those talks in 2009 and seemingly has viewed the nuclear program as key to the survival of its dynastic, communist regime, now entering its third generation.
The announcement, just more than two months after the death of longtime ruler Kim Jong Il, opened a door for the secretive government under his untested youngest son, Kim Jong Un, to improve ties with the United States and win critically needed aid and international acceptance.
It also opened the way for international inspections for the North’s nuclear program, which has gone unmonitored for years.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the agreement, announced at separate but simultaneous statements by the longtime adversaries, was a modest step but also “a reminder that the world is transforming around us.”
“We, of course, will be watching closely and judging North Korea’s new leaders by their actions,” Clinton told a congressional hearing.
The U.S. has accused North Korea of reneging on past nuclear commitments. An accord under the six-party talks collapsed in 2008 when Pyongyang refused to abide by verification that U.S. diplomats claimed had been agreed upon.
The North Korean Foreign Ministry’s statement, issued by the state-run news agency, said the North had agreed to the nuclear moratoriums and U.N. inspectors “with a view to maintaining positive atmosphere” for the U.S.-North Korea talks.
North Korea faces tough U.N. sanctions that were tightened in 2009 when it conducted its second nuclear test and fired a long-range rocket. In late 2010, it unveiled a uranium enrichment facility that could give North Korea a second route to manufacture nuclear weapons in addition to its existing plutonium-based program.
In the meantime, its people have continued to go hungry. The North suffered a famine in the 1990s that killed hundreds of thousands of people, and chronic food shortages persist. U.S. charities reported after a trip to North Korea late last year that children were suffering “slow starvation.”