North Korea has struck an important new deal with the US, but as with previous ones, there is concern whether Pyongyang will keep its word. In return for 240,000 tonnes of food aid and perhaps more, new leader Kim Jong-un's regime has promised to suspend uranium enrichment and agreed to a moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile tests. International inspectors who were kicked out in 2002 will be able to return to monitor compliance at the country's main reactor at Yongbyon. It is in the North's interests that the pact be adhered to; both countries and the region need stability not intransigence.
The framework for the agreement was brokered under Kim's late father, Kim Jong-il, so it offers limited insight into the new leadership's thinking. But food shortages remain as rampant in the poverty-stricken nation as they were before, making the aid crucial for solidifying support during the early months of the young leader's rule. Elections this year in the US and the North's bitter rival, South Korea, mean that following a steady path is sensible. If opposition parties in both countries get into government, they may not be as understanding as those currently in power. Calm waters would also be beneficial for close ally China, as it too is about to experience political transition.
But Pyongyang has a poor record for predictability and honouring deals. Time and again over the past two decades it has agreed to stop its nuclear programme, only to renege and demand further concessions. The latest pact, while significant, does not guarantee a resumption of the Beijing-hosted six-party talks on the North's denuclearisation. Nor does it prevent nuclear activity at facilities beyond Yongbyon. However, there is no better stepping stone towards attaining peace and stability on the Korean peninsula. North Korea and the US have pledged that this is their goal and they both must make every effort to work towards it. By keeping the promise, Kim Jong-un will open a positive new chapter for his country.