On Feb. 29, the Obama administration agreed to give North Korea 240,000 tons of food aid in return for a return for a North Korean moratorium on long-range missile tests, nuclear tests, uranium enrichment and other nuclear activities. Then last week North Korea announced that it was planning a satellite launch which of course involves using a long-range rocket in contravention of the “leap day” deal. This week North Korea says it will welcome International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors back after a hiatus of three years, thus seemingly upholding another aspect of the deal.
What’s going on? Why is Pyongyang making deals, then taking actions that immediately repudiate them, while promising to adhere to other parts of the accord? No one really knows whether this is sheer duplicity on the part of the North Korean leadership or a rivalry among different branches of the government, some of which might want to strike a deal and others that don’t. Given that North Korea has a young and untested leader, Kim Jong-un, anything is possible. But whatever the case there is absolutely no reason to trust the North Koreans who, under the dictatorship of Kim Jung Il, father of the current supreme leader, showed a genius for manipulating the West into reaching deals and then violating all of their commitments.
The Clinton and Bush administrations were both suckered into thinking they could make a deal with Pyongyang only to be cruelly disabused of that illusion. Now it’s Obama’s turn. The only real issue left is whether the 240,000 tons of food aid will be delivered in spite of North Korea’s failure to live up to its guarantees. It might be, because the food aid was presented as a humanitarian gesture not a quid pro quo. But that’s clearly what it was and if the U.S. is to have any credibility it must now announce that no food will be forthcoming. It’s a shame that North Korea’s long-suffering population must pay the price for its leaders’ duplicity and aggression but we have precious few other ways to hold this brutal regime to account.