Is North Korea Actually Giving Up Its Nuclear Weapons?

As the headlines hit the news cycle around noon, it seemed almost too good to be true. In exchange for food aid, North Korea would stop its nuclear weapons. But did the People's Democratic Republic of Korea really say that? And what might they be thinking?

I posed those questions to my colleague Dr. Joshua Van Lieu, an assistant professor of history at LaGrange College who does research on Korea and serves as the assistant editor of The Journal of Korean Studies. He's spent a fair amount of time in Korea, knows the language, and may know some of what the new North Korean regime is thinking.

1) The North Korean Message is Unusually Direct. Usually, the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) puts out its words with a flair for the dramatic, almost poetic terms. But the North Korean statement was fairly terse and straightforward, without the usual propaganda. It may give us the best chance for understanding what the new regime is thinking.

2) North Korea is Portraying the Agreement as a Diplomatic Triumph over the United States. Dr. Van Lieu noted that the KCNA announcement highlighted all that the United States agreed to do while only mentioning North Korean concessions at the very end of the announcement as a magnanimous response to an American request almost unrelated to the key issues of the talks.

3) The North Korean Message Indicated the Deal is Temporary. When Dr. Van Lieu read the Korean version of the text, he indicated that the word "temporary" was used twice to describe with North Korea would do ("temporarily suspending"). The KCNA English translation used the word "moratorium," which many Americans confuse for being permanent. The North Koreans have not indicated they are abandoning any part of the nuclear program and indeed have reserved the right to resume testing and processing should they deem the talks to be unproductive.

4) Kim Jong-Un Is Looking To Prove He Isn't Weak. Caving, even just a little bit, may not be a wise idea for the new 24 year-old ruler. That's why the KCNA communiqué was careful to indicate that the talks of February 2012 were a continuation of the talks begun last summer, when Kim Jong-Il was still alive. The new regime does not want to give the impression that the new concessions were a result of the possible weakness of the new leadership.

5) Promises Unfulfilled. Dr. Van Lieu also added that there are references to the 1994 agreement and the light water reactors promised North Korea in that deal that were never provided; North Korea is still waiting for them.

The deal may seem surprising since two days earlier North Korea used such harsh language to denounce the U.S. nuclear policy and wargame exercises. But when North Korea's words claim that the country is ready for war or peace, it is analogous to the great American diplomat's catch-phrase "all options are on the table." It looks as though they remain ready for anything.

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