Seoul sceptical of nuclear 'deal'
Andrew Salmon in Seoul
While the world hails an apparent breakthrough in talks - brokered between Washington and Pyongyang in Beijing - regarding North Korea's nuclear plans, experts in Seoul remain deeply cynical of the negotiations delivering any real progress on the ultranationalist state's atomic weapons programmes.
North Korea and the US announced on Wednesday that in return for 240,000 tonnes of American food aid, Pyongyang would suspend nuclear tests, long-range missile launches and enrichment of uranium, and would also allow back international nuclear inspectors
The Chinese Foreign Ministry welcomed the agreement, as did South Korea. 'We think that the US-North Korea talks and inter-Korea talks should go hand-in-hand like two wheels of a cart,' said a Unification Ministry official in Seoul. 'So we hope that the outcome of US-North Korea talks will have a positive effect on inter-Korean talks as well.'
Inter-Korean talks have been frozen since the North's deadly military attacks on South Korea in 2010.
'Beijing was playing an active role to bring the two parties together as we always believed that the problem between Washington and Pyongyang should be solved by themselves,' said Wang Fan, a Korean affairs expert at the China University of Foreign Affairs.
'The agreement is actually under the framework of the six-party talks, with the US and North Korea taking their first step to sound each other out ... It's a good beginning to revive the six-nation dialogues.'
Zha Daojiong, a professor of international political economy at the School of International Studies at Peking University, agreed: 'Clearly, both sides agreed on maintaining a level of stability in relations.'
Other non-mainland experts weren't so optimistic, however. It remains to be seen whether the new leader has adopted alternating between confrontation and negotiation - the same tactic mastered by his late father and grandfather.
'We are facing an endless soap opera,' said Professor Andrei Lankov, a North expert at Seoul's Kookmin University. 'What does it mean? Pretty much nothing: the North Koreans will offer some symbolic concession to squeeze some aid and will behave themselves for a while.'
Scott Snyder of the United States think tank The Council on Foreign Relations was also sceptical. 'In January they mentioned a possible 'temporary suspension of the nuclear programme', so it's fair to ask the question: how long will they stick to the deal? As long as it's in their interest to do so.'
Strikingly, the North's uranium-based programme is not the programme from which its current weapons originate.
The US first accused the North of developing a secret uranium enrichment programme in 2002, an event that led to the collapse of the 1994 'Agreed Framework' on North Korean denuclearisation.
The North furiously denied having such a programme, but following the collapse of subsequent six-party talks in 2008-09, the North revealed uranium enrichment facilities to visiting US scientists in 2010.
'When they revealed the uranium enrichment programme, it became a very influential bargaining chip,' said Park Chang-kwoun of the Korea Institute for Defence Analysis, or KIDA. 'It is great leverage.'
Yet the existing North Korean nuclear arms programme, believed to comprise enough fissile material for six to 12 warheads, is sourced from a separate plutonium-based programme. There was no indication in the new agreement as to how - or whether - that would be addressed.
'When they admitted they had a uranium-based programme, they did it because they hoped to sell it to the US, in a deal in exchange for aid. It did not work then but it may work now,' Lankov said. 'But the plutonium programme, they are not fools, they are not going to surrender it - it would be complete stupidity.
'In the long run, they probably hope to lay the groundwork for serious negotiations on nuclear arms restrictions, but not denuclearisation,' Lankov said. 'Denuclearisation is a non-starter, but is a way to make a deal: the Americans will pay North Korea for freezing it.'
'I think we should track the new North Korean leadership through negotiations; we do not know yet how it will behave on the nuclear issue,' said KIDA's Park, referring to Kim Jong-un, installed in power in December. 'It is a very good opportunity to check the new leadership.'
The US expects tough negotiations on the timing of the food aid and the nuclear inspections, according to a State Department official.
The food aid would be provided in 20,000-tonne increments every month for a year. The Obama administration will not start providing the aid until groups to distribute it are in full operation to ensure the help is not directed to the military or North Korea's elite, according to a second State Department official.
John Park, a research fellow at Harvard's Belfer Centre for Science and International Affairs, said implementation was key: 'The has been a long list of agreements which all lapsed because they couldn't get past the hurdle of implementation.'
But a commentary put out by the South Korean news agency Yonhap said that both North Korea and the US were looking for a deal that would prove mutually beneficial.
'It's a big deal that the North and the US are starting to see eye to eye,' an unnamed senior South Korean official told Yonhap.
Additional reporting by Minnie Chan and Christy Choi