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U.S. cautiously optimistic after food aid deal with North Korea

North Korea has agreed to halt its nuclear and missile program in exchange for food aid.

Story highlights

  • The U.S. is wary after 20 years of broken promises by North Korea
  • North Korea promises to allow international inspectors into nuclear sites
  • North Koreans are masters at extracting additional concessions from the international community

Never a regime to do something for nothing, North Korea took what Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called a "modest first step" in agreeing to halt its nuclear and missile program in exchange for food aid.

But Clinton knows full well that 20 years of broken promises by North Korea to successive American administrations, both Democrat and Republican, give good reason to pause before celebrating.

The deal though is a promising sign, a first step that is conciliatory rather than belligerent, as North Korea agreed to stop nuclear activity at its main facility in Yongbyon and impose a moratorium on nuclear tests and long-range missile launched in exchange for 240,000 tons of food assistance.

It also promised to allow international inspectors into nuclear sites that have gone unexamined for close to five years.

A refresher course on previous agreements between Washington and Pyongyang suggests a pattern by the North of agreeing to vaguely worded statements and making gestures meant to demonstrate its commitment to halt its program, only to cheat, stall and engage in nuclear antics. The North Koreans have been masters at extracting additional concessions from the international community to fulfill agreements it reneged on, all the while playing for the time needed to further develop nuclear weapons.

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Since 1992, when it first agreed, then refused, to allow inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency, North Korea has been pulling the wool over the eyes of the international community.

In 1994, the Bill Clinton administration announced the Agreed Framework with North Korea, which provided for a nuclear-free peninsula in exchange for massive amounts of energy assistance from the United States.

After years in which North Korea launched missile tests, ultimately withdrawing from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the international community needed to find a better way to rein in the North.

In 2003, the U.S., China, Japan, Russia and South Korea began an effort to show the reclusive North a path back into the international fold if it curbed its nuclear ambition. After several rounds of the so-called Six Party Talks, the group reached an agreement with Pyongyang to halt its nuclear program, resume compliance with the non-proliferation treaty and allow international inspectors to return.

In exchange, North Korea would receive food and energy assistance and a chance to normalize relations with the United States.

The talks would be off and on again for more than two years without agreement. In the meantime, North Korea conducted a nuclear weapons test in 2006. There were flickers of promise in 2007, when North Korea agreed to close its main reactor at Yongbyon, The following year, it demolished the Yongbyon cooling tower and handed over thousands of documents on its nuclear program to the United States. In return, North Korea was taken off the U.S. list of states that sponsored terrorism.

But the euphoria was short-lived. When the talks resumed in December, Pyongyang refused to abide by a verification accord that Washington claimed had been agreed upon.

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Since then, North Korea has launched another nuclear test, announced reprocessing of 8,000 nuclear fuel rods and enough weapons grade plutonium for a couple of nuclear bombs. And it promised it had no intention of either returning to talks or giving up its weapons.

Before his death, Kim Jong Il instructed officials to return to the table. An agreement for North Korea to once again suspend all nuclear and missile tests, and uranium production and allow the return for inspectors in exchange for food aid was close to being announced in late December, but Kim's death put everything on hold.

The main sticking point was the North demanded large quantities of food, which the U.S. has balked at out of fear it end up on some North Korean general's dinner table or on the black market to fund North Korea's nuclear development.

The Obama administration gave the new North Korean regime, led by Kim's son, Kim Jong Un, time to regroup, all the while emphasizing Washington was eager to pick up where the December talks left off.

Last week in Beijing, the U.S .envoy to North Korea Glyn Davies got encouraging news from his North Korean counterpart, leading to Wednesday's agreement. Pyongyang dropped its demand for foodstuffs and agreed to targeted "nutritional assistance" more appropriate for young children, pregnant mothers and the elderly than it would be for a banquet celebrating the 100th birthday of Kim Il Sung.

Officials see some positive signs in the fact that the new North Korean regime is picking up where the old one left off. And this first diplomatic move by the young new leader is being done within the self-declared 100 day mourning period for Kim Jong Il. This continuity suggests North Korea is interested in getting back to the table and begin to make further diplomatic progress.

But does the Obama administration think this time is different? It doesn't. Yet. Officials are being careful not to oversell what's happened, calling it a series of confidence building measures that can hopefully unlock the door to the resumption of most serious talks aimed at ending North Korea's nuclear ambitions.

They are hopeful, but cautious. They have been to this party before.

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