North Korean Announces Nuclear Moratorium; Gets US Aid in Exchange

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Lisa Mullins: I am Lisa Mullins and this is The World. An agreement between the United States and North Korea was announced today. North Korea said it is suspending its nuclear activity and its long-range missile test. In Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called it a modest first step in the right direction and the State Department said it would now send urgently needed U.S. food aid to the reclusive Asian nation. This news comes a week after U.S./North Korea talks in Beijing, the first since the death of Kim Jong Il in December. Stephen Bosworth served as U.S. special representative for North Korea Policy from 2009 until late last year. He says the agreement unveiled today had been in the works for a long time.

Stephen Bosworth: This is essentially the same deal we've been working toward since I was involved back in August and October. It's the deal that we thought was probably attainable in December before Kim Jong Il's death.

Mullins: Oh, that's interesting. You don't see this as much of a departure. If we are thinking of this as perhaps the first foreign policy opening under the new President Kim Jong-un, you're saying, pretty much, it's the same policy as his dad's.

Bosworth: Yes, pretty much. I would be shocked if it were any different.

Mullins: I wonder if this sounds distressingly familiar to you, the apparent opening up which is not always followed by action.

Bosworth: Yes. Events have a way of getting in the way. We were, I think, ready to move forward in similar ways back in 2010 when our progress was very much interrupted by the sinking of the South Korea naval vessel. I think it's been clear over the last year that North Korea was ready to move from a cycle of provocation toward a cycle of re-engagement. Both sides are very, very wary of the other and so it's not surprising that progress is very slow.

Mullins: Is it really viable to believe that North Korea would give up its nuclear capabilities since that is the biggest tool it has?

Bosworth: Well, I think that's the goal at the end of a long road of diplomatic engagement. There's a lot of things that we could get from North Korea and they could get from us short of full de-nuclearization, not that that is not a legitimate final goal.

Mullins: So, in the meantime…

Bosworth: In the meantime, we could hopefully verify their suspension of all aspects of their nuclear program; learn more about their uranium enrichment program — we really don't know very much about it at the moment. In other words, just reduce the level of concern to some extent.

Mullins: You have been at the negotiating table several times with North Koreans. When you hear news like this, I just wonder in the kind of big picture, what you have to tell yourself and what you would tell those of us listening who have never been anywhere near the table?

Bosworth: Dealing with North Korea is a very frustrating proposition and we've learned that their sense of their own interest can shift from time to time and that makes sustaining progress very difficult. We have a long way to go if we are going to significantly reduce the threat of instability on the Korean peninsula, but it is much better to be talking with them and not talking with them.

Mullins: By the way, do you know who is talking on that side? I mean, if this is a consistent message from Kim Jong Il to his son Kim Jong-un, the new leader, is it clear that Kim Jong-un is making the decisions or is it his father's old associates?

Bosworth: I would think that the decisions are being made in a collective fashion.

Mullins: You mean with one voice.

Bosworth: With one voice, but many different people singing in the choir. They have to take account of the interest of the North Korean military, the party, the members of the family, so this is not something that just flows from the personality of the leader himself. Survival of the regime is always their number one goal.

Mullins: Which would beg the question; does the regime believe it can survive without nuclear weapons?

Bosworth: At the moment, I think they are much more comfortable having nuclear weapons and, as they pointed out to me in one of my last encounters with them, they would argue that had Saddam Hussein had nuclear weapons, had Muammar Gaddafi not given up his nuclear program, that they might both still be in power. So, I think that what's happened in the world in recent years has probably strengthened North Korea's resolve to have nuclear weapons, but it's not to say that we can't engage in confidence-building measures on both sides and reduce this threat.

Mullins: Stephen Bosworth, thank you.

Bosworth: You're very welcome.

Mullins: Stephen Bosworth is Dean of the Fletcher School at Tufts University. He served as U.S. special representative for North Korea Policy from 2009 to 2011.