REPORTING FROM BEIJING AND WASHINGTON -- North Korea’s willingness to readmit nuclear weapons inspectors and suspend key parts of its weapons program is linked to a condition the U.S. has long-insisted should not be part of any nuclear talks: providing the North Koreans with desperately needed food aid.
As part of the deal announced Wednesday, North Korea will receive 240,000 metric tons of aid, and possibly more. In the past, Washington has insisted that food aid is a humanitarian issue that should not be tied to nuclear negotiations.
The deal appeared to ease fears in Washington that North Korea might carry out another nuclear test in the coming months to demonstrate its commitment to its nuclear program.
It comes just two months after the death of leader Kim Jong Il and suggested to some observers that his son and successor, Kim Jong Un, may be eager to shed the pariah status that has dogged North Korea and hindered its economy.
The younger Kim, who is in his late 20s and was educated for several years in Switzerland, is under pressure domestically to raise the living standards of one of poorest countries in the world. But American officials cautioned that the new leader’s long-term nuclear intentions remained unknown.
In the last decade, nuclear talks with North Korea have occurred on an off-again, on-again basis as Pyongyang ratcheted up its weapons program and the international community sought to cajole or threaten the older Kim.
In 2003, President George W. Bush said he might consider food and fuel aid if North Korea gave up its nuclear weapons program. Then, in winter 2007, the Bush administration agreed to a nuclear deal under which North Korea said it would begin disabling nuclear facilities in exchange for about $400 million in energy assistance and other incentives.
The new deal was apparently hammered out during two days of talks last week in Beijing between U.S. negotiator Glyn Davies and North Korea’s vice foreign minister, Kim Kye Gwan.
"The mere fact that, relatively soon after the political change, the DPRK [North Korea] is willing to sit down with us and go over those issues at some depth, I think, in and of itself, is positive and demonstrates a great progress," Davies told reporters Friday in Beijing.
North Korea released a statement Wednesday attributed to an unidentified spokesman from its foreign ministry saying that the nuclear moratorium and weapons inspections had been accepted “with a view to maintaining positive atmosphere” for future U.S.-North Korea talks.
The State Department said that in exchange for a halt to North Korean uranium enrichment and the testing of nuclear and long-range missiles, the U.S. was “prepared to take steps to improve our bilateral relationship in the spirit of mutual respect for sovereignty and equality.”
The department’s statement said nutritional teams from the two countries would meet to finalize details on distributing food aid.
"The United States still has profound concerns regarding North Korean behavior across a wide range of areas, but today's announcement reflects important, if limited, progress in addressing some of these," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.
Kim Jong Il’s death from a heart attack at age 69 was announced Dec. 19. Kim, who was the son of North Korea’s founder, Kim Il Sung, spent much of the last two decades developing his country’s weapons of mass destruction, which he claimed were needed for protection against the United States.
The subject of North Korea was raised in discussions in mid-February between President Obama and Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping, who is in line to become president next year, but it is unclear what if any role Beijing played in brokering the deal.
“Beijing’s role, as far as I know, has been pushing for contacts and negotiations on the bilateral level, while opposing any provocations," said Zhu Feng, a leading North Korea expert at Peking University.
Zhu cautioned that the communist country should not be presumed to have entirely abandoned its old habit of agreeing to deals and later wriggling out of them.
“The question is how far will Pyongyang go to live up to international demands that it change its behavior" Zhu said. “The deal is a small step toward more regular official contacts between the U.S. and DPRK and signals the return of negotiations over the extremely thorny issue of denuclearization.”
Inspectors from the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency were kicked out of North Korea in late 2002 during a dispute between Pyongyang and Washington. North Korea also restarted its main nuclear reactor at Yongbyon at that time. Since then it has conducted two nuclear tests, in 2006 and 2009.
The details of exactly when U.N. inspectors will return have yet to be finalized.
-- Barbara Demick and Paul Richter
Photo: Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton calls North Korea's agreement to suspend nuclear activities and accept a moratorium on testing "a modest step" in the right direction, as she testified on Capitol Hill in Washington on Wednesday. Credit: J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press