SEOUL, South Korea — At first glance, it seems like business as usual: North Korea issues an indignant statement taking aim at the United States over a proposal to donate food in return for nuclear disarmament.
But between the lines are glimmers of conciliation. In its diatribe this week questioning Washington’s generosity and earnestness, North Korea suggests it remains open to suspending a uranium enrichment program if it can get the food it wants.
Deciphering North Korea’s intentions is notoriously difficult, and has been made even more so since the death of longtime ruler Kim Jong Il and the subsequent installation of his young, inexperienced son, Kim Jong Un, at the top.
But how it handles talks with Washington over its food crisis and a decades-old standoff over its nuclear weapons program will provide the strongest clues yet about how the country will behave as it extends the Kim dynasty into a third generation — whether it will lean toward provocation or reconciliation and how tightly it will cling to its nuclear program.
North Korea’s neighbors and Washington are watching to see whether Kim Jong Un can consolidate power over a nation that proudly trumpets its efforts to build nuclear weapons and has a history of aggression against its southern neighbor and rival. There are fears that North Korea could seek to build Kim Jong Un’s credentials, and generate a sense of national unity, by conducting a missile or nuclear test or staging an attack on South Korea.
Signs so far are that Pyongyang is striving for continuity and maintaining the elder Kim’s policies. That has good and bad implications for policymakers in Washington and Seoul.
On one hand, Kim Jong Il’s marquee achievement is the North’s nuclear program, seen as crucial to the survival of an authoritarian government that struggles to feed its people. Pyongyang conducted nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009 and has developed missiles with the potential to attack its neighbors and potentially reach the United States.
Zhang Liangui, a Korea specialist and professor at a Chinese Communist Party training academy, told The Global Times newspaper that the North sees its nuclear program as part of Kim Jong Il’s legacy, an indication that it would be impossible for Pyongyang to abandon it — at least under the present leadership.
But on the plus side, Wednesday’s statement from an unidentified Foreign Ministry spokesman in Pyongyang suggests it is open to pursuing an apparent deal with the United States that was in the making before Kim died and could be portrayed as a diplomatic victory for the North.
The Associated Press reported in mid-December that the United States was poised to announce a significant donation of food aid to North Korea. That would have been followed within days by an agreement to suspend North Korea’s uranium enrichment program, according to a broad outline of the emerging agreement made known to the AP by people close to the negotiations.
Worries about North Korea’s nuclear capability took on renewed urgency in November 2010 when the country disclosed a uranium enrichment facility that could give it a second route to manufacture nuclear weapons, in addition to its existing plutonium-based program. At low levels, uranium can be used in power reactors, but at higher levels it can be used in nuclear bombs.
In its statement this week, the North accused Washington of changing the amount and kind of aid it was offering to send, and voiced doubt over U.S. intentions, but concluded: “We will watch if the U.S. truly wants to build confidence.”
“For those in the U.S. government seeking to re-engage with the North Koreans ... this may provide the clearest indicator yet that there is more continuity than change in the early post-Kim Jong Il period,” said John Park, an expert on North Korea at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.
In North Korea’s New Year’s editorial, which provides a major signal of its policy priorities, Pyongyang appeared to strike a conciliatory tone. The editorial was notable for what it left out: the usual glorification of its nuclear ambitions and harsh criticism of the United States.
While emphasizing strength, unity and the continuation of Kim Jong Il’s “military-first” policy under his son, it also acknowledged that “the food problem is a burning issue.”
With little arable land and outdated agricultural practices, North Korea has long struggled to feed its people. The United Nations has said a quarter of North Korea’s 24 million people need aid and that malnutrition is surging, especially among children.
Addressing the need for food could be essential to stability under the new leadership.
In April 2012, North Korea will mark the centenary of the birth of national founder Kim Il Sung, the new leader’s grandfather. According to the country’s propaganda, that occasion will herald the North’s path toward a “great, prosperous and powerful nation.”
Kim Jong Un, like his father, will struggle with feeding his people and settling political differences with Seoul and Washington, according to Haksoon Paik, an analyst at the Sejong Institute in South Korea.
“Those problems are real tough challenges for the new leader in the North, the solution to which requires cooperation from (the) outside world,” Paik said.
The path toward reaching a deal on food aid remains unclear.
U.S. officials and North Korean diplomats based at its U.N. mission in New York have remained in touch since Kim’s Dec. 17 death, but the two sides have yet to restart formal discussions. The State Department says unresolved differences remain over the assessment of the food the North needs and how its distribution would be monitored.
Before Kim’s death, the wartime enemies had also been discussing setting up another round of bilateral talks aimed at restarting six-nation nuclear disarmament talks that the North pulled out of in early 2009. The talks also include China, Japan, Russia and South Korea.
Ralph Cossa, president of Pacific Forum CSIS, a Hawaii-based think tank, said six-nation negotiations would likely resume at some point, as no one has come up with a better way for the parties to talk.
But “their stated intent — denuclearization of the Korean peninsula — will remain a pipe dream,” Cossa said.