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North Korea nuclear deal: Five ideas about what it means

February 29, 2012 | 11:57 am

North Korean military

North Korea has offered to suspend nuclear tests and enrichment as part of a deal under which it will  receive 240,000 metric tons of food aid, U.S. officials have announced. What does this mean? The Times turned to four experts for their insights. Here are five key points they made about this important deal.

1. It’s a good sign about new leader Kim Jong Un.

The U.S. and North Korea were reportedly close to a food-for-cooperation deal in December when former leader Kim Jong Il died of a heart attack. When his baby-faced son Kim Jong Un took over, no one was sure what to expect and what it meant for nuclear talks.

“My assumption was the military would press for further tests and Kim Jong Un, being young and inexperienced, wouldn’t be in a position to say no to them,” said Mark Fitzpatrick, director of the non-proliferation and disarmament program at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “Instead, he’s striking a deal with the United States. It bodes well for his foreign policy smarts.”

2. This deal only goes so far, but it could start the ball rolling on bigger changes.

Halting nuclear weapons testing and enrichment means that North Korea would stop heading down the path to weapons that could threaten Japan and South Korea, at least temporarily. It will also put its main nuclear reactor at Yongbyon under foreign monitoring.

The deal doesn’t wipe away the nuclear stockpiles or devices that North Korea already has. There are also suspicions that North Korea has other, unrevealed nuclear facilities, though there is no evidence that it has another plant that could enrich uranium on the same scale as its main reactor.

“The problem is not knowing what elements of the gas centrifuge program [used to enrich uranium] exist outside of Yongbyon,” its main reactor, said Paul Brannan, a senior analyst at the Institute for Science and International Security based in Washington.

But these steps could help bring North Korea back into multilateral talks, which could someday lead to getting rid of its nuclear weapons, said Peter Crail, a research analyst with the Arms Control Assn.

3. Smoothing relations with South Korea and Japan are an important, more difficult next step.

Before taking more aggressive steps to dismantle its nuclear program, North Korea will want a serious peace process on the Korean peninsula, said Leon Sigal, director of the Northeast Asia Cooperative Security Project at the Social Science Research Council. It also will want more serious political and economic engagement from the U.S., South Korea and Japan.

4. North Korea is trying to make good on its “strong and prosperous” slogan.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of its founder Kim Il Sung, with North Korea gearing up to show it’s a “strong and prosperous nation.” That slogan upped the ante for getting food aid, Crail said. North Korea wanted to show it was healthier and happier on the big anniversary.

5. The linchpin of this agreement is a pledge of American goodwill.

The U.S. doesn’t have to give much for this agreement, Sigal said. The food aid is “a trivial amount in dollar terms.” In his view, the heart of the agreement is reiterating a statement the two countries made 12 years ago -– that they wouldn’t have “hostile intent” toward each other.

That may seem surprising for Americans used to alarming North Korean rhetoric, but strengthening relations has long been a goal.

RELATED:

U.S. still taking cautious approach to North Korea aid

What would 240,000 tons of U.S. food mean for North Korea?

North Korea offers to suspend nuclear weapons tests, U.S. says

-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

Photo: Senior North Korean military members approach Kumsusan Memorial Palace in Pyongyang, where North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and other leaders were commemorating the 70th birthday of the late Kim Jong Il on Feb. 16. Credit: David Guttenfelder / Associated Press

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