The United States is poised to announce a significant donation of food aid to North Korea this week, and an agreement by North Korea to suspend its controversial uranium enrichment program will likely follow within days, the Associated Press reported Sunday, citing unnamed people close to the negotiations.
The AP said the emerging agreement is the first concrete accomplishment after months of behind-the-scenes diplomatic contacts between the two wartime enemies.
Discussions have been taking place since summer in New York, Geneva and Beijing. They already have yielded agreements by North Korea to suspend nuclear and ballistic missile testing, readmit international nuclear inspectors expelled in 2009, and resume a dialogue between North Korea and South Korea, the AP reported, attributing the information to the people who spoke on condition of anonymity because of sensitivity of the negotiations.
Suspension of uranium enrichment had been a key outstanding demand from the United States and South Korea of the North Korea, which has tested two atomic devices in the past five years. Food talks in Beijing yielded a breakthrough on uranium enrichment, the people told the AP.
The announcement of the food aid, expected to take place as early as today in Washington, not only would be welcome news for North Korea, but also could pave the way for another crucial U.S.-North Korea meeting in Beijing on Thursday. That meeting, in turn, could lead within weeks to the resumption of nuclear disarmament talks that would also include China, Japan, Russia and South Korea.
North Korea quit the so-called six-party talks in 2009, and resuming them would amount to a foreign policy coup for the Obama administration.
The United States would provide 240,000 tons of high-protein biscuits and vitamins — 20,000 tons a month for a year — but not much-wanted rice, according to reports in the South Korean media. It would be the first food aid from the United States in nearly three years.
Negotiators have sought for two decades to persuade North Korea to dismantle its plutonium-producing nuclear reactor at Yongbyon, which the government insists exists to generate much-needed power.
But plutonium can be used to make atomic bombs, and North Korea also stands by its right to develop missiles to defend itself against the nuclear-armed United States.
In 2009, North Korea tested a missile capable of reaching U.S. shores, earning widespread condemnation and strengthened U.N. sanctions. An incensed North Korea, which insisted the rocket launch was designed to send a satellite into space, walked away from ongoing nuclear disarmament talks in protest.
In the weeks that followed, North Korea tested a nuclear device and announced it would begin enriching uranium, which would give it a second way to make atomic weapons.
"North Korea's disclosure of a uranium enrichment program was bait" for negotiations and aid, said Jeung Young Tae, an analyst with the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul. "And the United States grabbed that bait."
With little arable land and outdated agricultural practices, North Korea has long struggled to feed its people. Flooding and a harsh winter further destroyed crops. The World Food Program issued a plea this year for $218 million in humanitarian help to feed the most vulnerable.
As donations trickled in, Washington deliberated for months on whether to contribute food aid.
Then, in July, U.S. and North Korean negotiators met in New York, and again in Geneva in November. Two days of discussion on food aid in Beijing led to this week's expected announcement of a food-aid package, the AP reported, citing the people familiar with the negotiations.
A peace treaty with the United States to formally end the Korean War and ensure stability on the Korean peninsula has remained a key goal for the North Korean leadership.
The war that erupted in 1950 was suspended with an armistice in 1953, but tensions on the peninsula have remained high ever since.
A technical state of war remains, and the United States maintains a garrison of 28,500 troops in South Korea to protect its ally against aggression.