(MENAFN - Khaleej Times) Two months after his succession, North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un has seized the initiative by agreeing to restart denuclearisation talks with the United States.
The imperative for choosing to talk is clear: He urgently needs to establish leadership credentials at a time of domestic transition, especially in the face of acute food shortages ahead of the centennial celebration of his grandfather and the nation's founder, Kim Il Sung, on April 15. The move also relieves international pressure on China to bring its close ally to the table, although it does little to ease Beijing's strained relations with South Korea.
Under the February 29 agreement reached in Beijing, Pyongyang is to freeze its nuclear weapons programme in exchange for 240,000 tons of US food aid; the North must implement a moratorium on its uranium-enrichment activities and allow the International Atomic Energy Agency to inspect and monitor key nuclear facilities at Yongbyon. In addition, it will suspend long-range missile launches and nuclear tests and open the 5-megawatt reactor from which an unspecified amount of plutonium has already been extracted for a separate, previous weapons programme.
In short, this deal takes North Korea back to where it was in 2008, before it kicked out international inspectors from Yongbyon and walked out of the six-party confab in Beijing.
The new arrangement hardly gives reason for Washington, Seoul or Tokyo to breathe a sigh of relief. Indeed, there's only a guarded optimism, given the history of North Korea's duplicity and bad faith. Taking a closer look at the terms of the agreement, officials in Seoul say they already find potential pitfalls. The only site specifically mentioned in the US statement was the uranium-enrichment facility at the Yongbyon complex, Seoul officials said. This could keep disclosure limited to Yongbyon, already known, thus allowing the North a showcase as was done with the 5-negawatt site in previous inspections.
According to senior security officials in Seoul, there are at least four other suspect underground facilities they understand are used for uranium-enrichment activities, mostly located near the China border, presumably as way of making potential US bombing raids politically hazardous.
Indeed, China is the only party that appears excited over this agreement being potentially fruitful. China increasingly must keep North Korea afloat as a nation. As a major patron on the international stage, China no longer cares to conceal its protective role over North Korea's errant military behaviours. At the UN Security Council, China refuses to endorse resolutions condemning the North's nuclear tests, or attacks on a South Korean warship and artillery shelling of Yeonpyong Island, killing 50 people altogether in 2010.
In defiance of a UN resolution sanctioning arms supply to Pyongyang, China continues to send military vehicles and fuel so that the North Korea can maintain force along the border with South Korea.
Lately, China's role as an economic lifeline has only grown, as it supplies several hundred thousand tons of food aid that helps feed the North Korean army.
These military and political ties have had the effect of undermining Seoul's multifarious relations with China, with which South Korea runs a substantial bilateral trade worth more than 200 billion a year, mostly in Korea's favour. Other areas of people-to-people diplomacy are also fraying. By and large, South Koreans regard China's close association with the Pyongyang regime as the price of political alliance and geographic proximity.
What bothers many, however, is Chinese support for Pyongyang's totalitarian system at the expense of human rights, as evident in a growing number of young protesters outside the Chinese embassy in Seoul.
In the long run, China's position on North Korea's nuclear issue will test the strength of Seoul's relations with Beijing. No one here buys China's argument that it has no leverage over the Pyongyang regime, and some associate this view with China's recent refusal to intervene and stop the mass killings inside Syria.
Closer to home, with China backing succession of the Kim dynasty, continuing its lifeline, more Koreans regard China not as a responsible guardian of international order but a cynical and selfish power.