Nuclear test moratorium eases tensions with North Korea
By Dirk Godder Mar 1, 2012, 17:11 GMT
Seoul - The announcement by North Korea that it is to suspend nuclear tests and stop long-range missile launches has raised hopes that tensions will ease in the region.
Pyongyang also agreed to cease the enrichment of uranium at a nuclear facility and to permit visits by nuclear inspectors, even if much work remains before the goal of a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula is achieved.
The deal struck with the United States also involved discussions with Russia and China, North Korea's main ally. Not surprisingly, the news of the nuclear test suspension was greeted cautiously in the region, as previous deals that were considered breakthroughs have come to nothing.
A basic agreement was reached at six-party talks in 2005 that North Korea dismantle its nuclear weapons programme and dispose of all its nuclear weapons. The talks involved North and South Korea, China, the US, Japan and Russia.
But since then, the reclusive state has regularly been involved in confrontation with the international community. This included carrying out two nuclear tests and a long-range missile launch.
Experts see the new deal as a necessary step towards the resumption of multi-party talks on North Korea's nuclear programme. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the decision a 'modest step' in the right direction.
The devil is in the detail and the US, South Korea and other countries will want to see North Korea follow up on its promises. Washington will meanwhile be expected to provide food aid to impoverished North Korea.
'This is the start of a re-engagement in the six-party talks,' said Park Young Ho from the Korean Institute for National Reunification in Seoul.
However, Park believes there are limits to how far Pyongyang will go. 'I don't think that North Korea will reach the decision to completely give up its nuclear programme,' he said.
Many hurdles still remain, as can be seen from the difference in tone between the announcements coming out of Washington and Pyongyang last week while the negotiations went on in Beijing.
Apart from the food aid, Pyongyang is interested in the delivery of two nuclear light-water reactors for its electricity supply and wants the issue of lifting international sanctions to be made a priority in new six-party talks.
The development of nuclear weapons is considered an important legacy of previous leader Kim Jong Il, who died in December and was replaced by his son Kim Jong Un.
The inexperienced new leader is currently consolidating his power base. Analysts believe he would lose an important card in negotiations, if he agreed to completely abandon North Korea's nuclear programme.
Nevertheless, the US government can present its agreement with Pyongyang as a diplomatic success in a presidential election year.
The development of long-range missiles by North Korea has been considered a growing danger by the US in recent years. North Korea is also thought to be synchronizing its missile and atomic programmes, and to be developing nuclear warheads for long-range missiles.
North Korea will receive food aid in return for its nuclear moratorium. The assistance is urgently needed in a country that claims to be building a 'great, prosperous and powerful nation' as it marks the centennial of the birth of national founder Kim Il Sung, the new leader's grandfather, in April.
Kim Jong Un is continuing the policy followed by his late father, who on many occasions declared his willingness to enter into new nuclear talks with the US, China, South Korea, Russia and Japan.
But talks with Washington were more important to North Korea than the six-party talks, analysts say. The government in Pyongyang wants to face the US on equal terms - one nuclear power talking to another.
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