After three years of frozen relations between North Korea and the United States, the two longstanding adversaries are on the verge of a thaw.
In what has been called the "leap day deal", North Korea has pledged to stop uranium enrichment and suspend nuclear and missile tests. The United States, meanwhile, will deliver 240,000 metric tonnes of food to the country's malnourished population.
The Barack Obama administration has maintained a policy of "strategic patience" toward North Korea, which amounted to a wait-and-see approach while Washington was preoccupied with other foreign policy issues. Obama administration officials portray the leap day deal as a modest first step in reengaging the North.
"After the really tough sanctions that were put in place by the U.N. Security Council and the North Koreans announced that they wanted to return to Six-Party Talks, talks that they had previously abandoned, we and our allies made clear that North Korea needed to take a number of steps that would demonstrate their seriousness of purpose," said a senior U.S. official at a background briefing on Feb. 29.
"We were firm that we were only interested in credible negotiations leading to the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula."
The death of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in late 2011 interrupted the preparatory steps toward this deal. Although the country remains officially in its 100-day mourning period, the leader's youngest son and successor, Kim Jong Un, has continued key elements of his father's policies. Foremost among these is the more energetic diplomacy North Korea has conducted over the last year.
As the Obama administration attempts a "Pacific pivot" to refocus its geopolitical energies from the Middle East to Asia, North Korea has been executing a pivot of its own. The centennial of the birth of the country's founder Kim Il Sung, 2012 is also the year that North Korea has pledged to achieve the status of kangsong taeguk: an economically prosperous and militarily strong country.
To attract the economic investment necessary to achieve this goal, North Korea has reached out to friend and foe alike.
North Korea has been negotiating with Russia, for instance, over a natural gas pipeline that would extend down the peninsula to customers in South Korea and possibly Japan. Extensive deals with China have been concluded over access to minerals and ports. Even inter-Korean relations, which bottomed out over the last several years as a result of low-level military clashes and high-level belligerent rhetoric, promise to improve as both ruling party and opposition party leaders in the South lean toward a more conciliatory policy.
Meanwhile, the industrial zone at Kaesong, run by 123 South Korean firms on North Korean territory, has expanded to employ more than 50,000 North Korean workers.
But the focus of the North Korean negotiating strategy has been the United States, with whom it has frequently insisted on bilateral discussions.
"The North Koreans have been interested in reaching some accommodation with the United States for a while now," observed Joel Wit, a former State Department official and currently a visiting fellow at the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies.
"It's been a year now that they've been sending signals that they're interested in talking and taking some limited steps forward. The Obama administration didn't take them up on it because the South Koreans were against it. But South Korea's position changed last summer," he said.
Another reason for the North Korean pivot is its perennial push-pull relationship with China.
"The North Koreans feel that they've become very close to China over the past few years because of the U.S. policy of 'strategic patience,' which has forced them into the Chinese arms," Wit continued. "But the North Koreans aren't comfortable with that. They're trying to create some distance with the Chinese, using the United States as a balancer."
U.S. reaction to the leap day deal has ranged from relief at North Korea's moratorium on testing and missile launches to scepticism that the deal represents anything new.
"North Korea's promise to suspend certain nuclear activities can't be taken at face value, given the almost certain existence of several undeclared nuclear facilities," said U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, in a press statement. "Pyongyang will likely continue its clandestine nuclear weapons program right under our noses. We have bought this bridge several times before."
North Korea, meanwhile, seems to interpret the agreement somewhat differently from the United States. A Korean Central News Agency article reported that the Six-Party Talks would prioritise "the lifting of sanctions on the DPRK and provision of light water reactors", neither of which are mentioned in U.S. government statements.
The humanitarian community has reacted with unambiguous support for the resumption of food aid, which will consist of nutritional supplements designed particularly for children and pregnant women.
"There have been over six nutritional assessments, most everything done on our own dime, to verify that there is a need for food," says Robert Springs, the head of Global Resource Services, one of the five NGOs involved in the last round of U.S. food aid distribution. "We welcome this nutritional assistance. It's responding to a need. It should have been done a long time ago."
A new round of multilateral negotiations through the Six-Party Talks has not yet been announced. North Korea must first make arrangements for International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors to return to the country after being expelled in 2009. Monitoring protocols for the U.S. food aid deliveries must also be negotiated.
U.S. officials remain upbeat. "They're doing it within the 100-day mourning period that's self-declared in North Korea," says a senior administration official. "So it shows that they're interested with some alacrity to reach out, to get back to the table, and begin to try to make diplomatic progress, and I think that's a positive sign."
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