The United States and North Korea have each issued statements about the results of last week's meetings in China, but the two sides seem to be reading from two different sheets of paper.
U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Glyn Davies and Special Envoy to the Six Party Talks Clifford Hart traveled to Beijing for meetings with top DPRK officials Feb. 23 and 24, including North Korea's top nuclear negotiator Kim Gye Gwan. These were the first U.S.-DPRK direct talks since the December death of Kim Jong Il. Today, the State Department sent out its statement on the meetings as well as the DPRK's official news agency's readout of what was agreed. Apparently, something was lost in translation, because the two readouts just don't match.
"[T]he DPRK has agreed to implement a moratorium on long-range missile launches, nuclear tests and nuclear activities at Yongbyon, including uranium enrichment activities," the U.S. statement said. "The DPRK has also agreed to the return of IAEA inspectors to verify and monitor the moratorium on uranium enrichment activities at Yongbyon and confirm the disablement of the 5-MW reactor and associated facilities."
Regarding the pending deal to give North Korea 240,000 tons of U.S. food assistance, the U.S. readout explained, "We have agreed to meet with the DPRK to finalize administrative details necessary to move forward with our proposed package of 240,000 metric tons of nutritional assistance along with the intensive monitoring required for the delivery of such assistance."
The United States has always maintained that nuclear negotiations and food assistance were not linked and the Obama administration must appear it is not being lured into the time-honored tradition of what critics see as "bribing" North Korea to talk. But the State Department admitted last week that the food-assistance issue might come up during the nuclear talks, and in fact, it did.
The State Department didn't say anything meaningful about sanctions on North Korea in its statement, only promising to increase people-to-people exchanges in areas such as sports and pledging that "U.S. sanctions against the DPRK are not targeted against the livelihood of the DPRK people."
And what about Pyongyang's interpretation?
If you read the North Korean statement on the meetings, which hasn't yet been posted on the KCNA website but was sent around to reporters Wednesday morning, you would have a somewhat different idea of what happened in Beijing.
"The U.S. promised to offer 240,000 metric tons of
nutritional assistance with the prospect of additional food assistance, for
which both the DPRK and the U.S. would finalize the administrative details in
the immediate future," the North Koreans said. "Once the six-party talks are
resumed, priority will be given to the discussion of issues concerning the
lifting of sanctions on the DPRK and provision of light water reactors."
The United States hasn't publicly discussed the idea of providing light-water nuclear reactors to North Korea since the KEDO project terminated its activity in 2006, due to what U.S. officials say is North Korea's failure to live up to the deal under which KEDO was begun.
As recently as Feb. 27, the State Department was insisting that no decision has been made on providing food assistance to North Korea, which is opposed by many in Congress.
"As they always do, the North Korean side also raised the nutritional assistance, so we did discuss that," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said about the Beijing meetings. "As you know, the United States does not link these issues. There's no deal to be had here. But we did continue to discuss the questions that the U.S. has with regard to need, with regard to how we might monitor nutritional assistance if we are to go forward with it. So no decisions have been made either on the six-party talks side or on the nutritional assistance side."
Former Pentagon Asia official Dan Blumenthal, now a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said that the confusion over the meeting was due to a lack of a clear strategy for achieving U.S. goals in North Korea beyond just scheduling more talks.
He also said that North Korea is never likely to give up its nuclear weapons, which is the stated U.S. goal, so the basis for the negotiations is flawed from the outset.
"The DPRK statement is just the public rhetoric part of their strategy, which is to get accepted by the U.S. and others as a nuclear power and meanwhile to extract other concessions that alleviate their economic problems," Blumenthal said.
But other analysts saw the deal as an incremental step forward and left open the possibility for real progress.
"These steps are modestly significant," said Richard Bush of the Brookings Institution. "They could indeed be an initial step on a path towards serious negotiations, negotiations that Pyongyang scuttled by its own actions. Or they could simply be a ploy to get nutritional assistance and meddle in South Korean politics. North Korea's record suggests the latter, but we shall see. I think it is safe to say that no one in Washington, Seoul, or Tokyo is holding their breath."
UPDATE: A senior administration official gave more detail on the food assistance discussions in a Wednesday background briefing with reporters. The United States put forward an offer of 20,000 tons of food assistance per month, but not the rice and grain that the North Korean government wanted, because that could be easily diverted to the military.
“And we’re talking about foods that would be appropriate for young children, in particular those under five or six years old, pregnant woman as well because we want to make sure we address the sort of the first 1,000 days as the administration has wanted to focus on,” the official said. “We’re going to have things like corn-soy blend, we will have vegetable oil, some pulses, and then there will be probably a modest amount of the ready-to-use therapeutic foods depending upon the number of children that we see with acute malnutrition.”
The official explained that monitoring mechanisms would have to be firmly in place before food aid can begin to flow. “If we are successful in finalizing the details that I’ve just laid out, this will be the most comprehensively monitored and managed program since the U.S. began assistance to the DPRK in the mid 1990s,” the official said.
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.