As of last Friday, President Barack Obama's administration was considering announcing a new package of food aid to North Korea and working toward the resumption of talks about North Korea's nuclear program. Today, that whole plan has been upended due to the death of Kim Jong Il, forcing the administration to grapple with a whole new set of North Korea problems.
On Dec. 15-16, the State Department's Special Envoy for Human Rights Bob King met with North Korean foreign ministry official Ri Gun in Beijing to work out the details for monitoring the distribution of huge new shipments of food aid from the United States to North Korea, which claims to be in dire need. The South Korean press reported on Dec. 17 that an agreement had been struck for the United States to send 20,000 tons of food aid a month to North Korea for the next 12 months, or a grand total of 240,000 tons of food assistance.
The U.S. Special Representative on North Korea Glyn Davies was also in Beijing Dec. 15 and 16, coincidentally. On Dec. 17, news reports quoted an anonymous diplomatic source as saying that Pyongyang had agreed to suspend uranium enrichment -- one of Washington's key demands for the resumption of Six Party Talks on North Korea's nuclear program, which have been defunct since 2008. Davies was supposed to travel to Beijing to firm up the details of that arrangement with North Korean First Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye-Gwan on Dec. 22.
All of those arrangements are now on hold indefinitely, as the United States regroups with allies Japan and South Korea to try to assess the current situation inside North Korea, prepare for the downside risk of a violent transition, and figure out how to proceed in dealing with a regime that has nuclear weapons and a very uncertain future.
"Where we were headed was the giving of food aid, the restart of the [prisoner of war] remains recovery project (to return U.S. soldiers killed in the Korean war), and these would be the two goodies that North Korea would get to undertake the pre-steps to restarting the Six Party Talks. The administration was going to announce the food aid this week and Davies was supposed to be in Beijing by Thursday," said Victor Cha, former Asia director at the National Security Council, who now holds the Korea chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"Now we've got a whole new problem, not just seeing if we can get back to where we were Friday," said Cha. "This transition may not go well. It completely changes the whole character of the North Korea problem overnight. A runaway nuclear program, the sudden death of Kim Jong Il, and we know nothing about the new leadership. You can't imagine a worse problem than this."
At today's State Department press briefing, spokeswoman Victoria Nuland emphasized that no final decisions had been made on granting food aid to North Korea or sending Davies to Beijing. In fact, she said that there was supposed to be a high-level interagency meeting today at the White House with King and Davies to make these very decisions.
That meeting did take place early on Monday, but did not focus on food aid, uranium enrichment, the Six Party talks, or any other bilateral issue, according to Nuland.
"Meetings that might have happened today with our travelers who just got back instead were focused on maintaining close contact with our other partners in the Six Party Talks and on ensuring calm and regional stability on the peninsula," Nuland said. "So we have yet to have the internal review of these issues that we need to have."
Nuland also said that the Obama administration wanted "to be respectful of the North Korean period of mourning," so no further negotiations are expected for a while. North Korea does not intend to invite foreign delegations to Kim's Dec. 28 funeral.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was briefed on the situation in North Korea twice on Sunday night by Davies and Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell. She just happened to be meeting Monday at the State Department with Japanese Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba, after which told reporters, "We both share a common interest in a peaceful and stable transition in North Korea, as well as in ensuring regional peace and stability."
Clinton said that Obama had spoken with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak on Sunday night, and officials were reaching out to their counterparts in Russia and China as well. Clinton made no mention of the recent U.S.-North Korea bilateral diplomacy, nor did she reiterate calls for North Korea to honor its previous agreements to denuclearize and rejoin multilateral talks on that issue.
Clinton and Gemba took no questions at their post-meeting "press conference."
One Asia hand close to the administration told The Cable today that the bilateral negotiations between the United States and North Korea were even more advanced than had been reported. According to this expert, the North Koreans had also discussed a moratorium on missile testing, which would have been announced after the resumption of the Six Party Talks. The North Koreans were also asking the United States to resume its assistance in building a light water commercial nuclear reactor in North Korea, an idea that has been part of past negotiations but was scuttled when the 1994 Agreed Framework, which was meant to govern North Korea's nuclear program, broke down in 2002.
That 1994 agreement is seen by some as a positive indicator that progress can be made with North Korea despite a leadership transition. The agreement was signed only months after Kim Jong Il took power following the death of his father, Kim Il Sung.
"We want to continue forward and see if there's continuity in their policy," the Asia hand said.. "If we're in a holding pattern for too long, things could shift in the other direction. That's the danger here."
If and when the food aid decision finally comes, it will be controversial here in Washington. Several GOP senators are opposed to what they see as bribing the North Koreans to come back to the negotiating table. In fact, some senators will likely point to assurances the administration gave Congress that it wouldn't bribe North Korea, which were made as part of the deal to confirm the U.S. envoy to South Korea, Sung Kim, in October.
The State Department always claims that food aid decisions are made on humanitarian grounds and not linked to policy decisions, but the timing of the negotiations is not seen as a coincidence by those on Capitol Hill.
"Food aid is always classified as separate, however, if the press reports are accurate it is clear that the administration was prepared to link food aid to a suspension of North Korea's uranium enrichment program," one Senate GOP aide told The Cable. "Of course food aid is a financial reward.... Leave it to North Korea -- Kim's untimely death -- to save the administration from its own worst impulses. How long they can resist repeating the mistakes of 1994 remains to be seen."
MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.