For a brief window-less than 24 hours, to be exact-it looked like a diplomatic breakthrough. After two years, four rounds of talks, and six parties at the table, North Korea signed a statement Sept. 19 agreeing to dismantle its nuclear weapons program in return for aid and security guarantees.
But the feted news soon turned embarrassing for the United States and fellow negotiators China, South Korea, Russia, and Japan. The next day North Korea demanded it receive light-water nuclear reactors-supposedly for energy needs-before it dismantled its weapons program. "The U.S. should not even dream" of North Korean nuclear dismantlement, an official government statement read, until the nation had received the reactors as "a physical guarantee for confidence-building."
For many North Korea watchers, this was a familiar tactic from the Stalinist state: backpedaling to eke out more concessions. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice brushed it off. "We will stick to the text of the Beijing statement, and I believe we can make progress if everybody sticks to what was actually agreed to," she said.
Even so, some analysts worry the United States has already conceded too much ahead of the next round of talks scheduled for early November. Chuck Downs, a former Pentagon official and author of Over the Line: North Korea's Negotiating Strategy, said the United States has weakened its leverage in this round. The Kim Jong Il regime got what it wanted: a U.S. assurance that Washington will not pursue or consider military action against it.
"This is really the only way you get the North Koreans to be cooperative," Mr. Downs said. "We tried to take away our own ability to threaten them. They wanted us to tie our own legs together before we proceeded with these negotiations."
The Beijing joint statement also looks like the first step toward a similar agreement to the failed 1994 framework, under which North Korea won aid and reactors for "freezing" its nuclear weapons activities. In reality, the nation pursued a clandestine uranium enrichment program uncovered by the Bush administration in 2002. Even holding out the prospect for light-water reactors is a softer stance: "That's how the North Koreans see it," Mr. Downs said. "That was put in at the request of North Korea."
As full focus was on the diplomatic theater, however, equally significant humanitarian news emerged. The World Food Program (WFP) announced Sept. 16 that North Korea has asked it to stop emergency food aid shipments by the end of the year. For a country that has been in starvation mode for a decade, the impact could be deep and devastating.
WFP currently feeds about 6.5 million North Koreans a year, almost a third of the population, beginning 10 years ago when the state-induced famine was at its worst. North Korea wants to convert food aid into development aid, which already constitutes three-quarters of the work WFP does, including food-for-work programs and managing food reprocessing factories.
"The government has said they'll take care of it," said WFP Country Director Richard Ragan, who spoke to WORLD from Pyongyang. "Until such [time] that doesn't happen, I have to believe that they will."
The West is reluctant to supply more development aid to North Korea, however, without meaningful reforms. "If they don't, we'll have to begin closing the office," said Mr. Ragan.
The Kim Jong Il regime has been threatening to shut down WFP in North Korea for about a year, but only now seems to be serious. The move coincides with donor fatigue on the part of WFP partners. Aid has been steadily dropping, with only 270,000 tons of food-half the amount requested by WFP-made available to North Korea this year.
Early signs also show a better harvest in store. Most compelling for North Korean officials, however, is that North Korea can lean more on China and South Korea for its food aid, neither of which require stringent monitoring of where it goes. Both nations already supply about 650,000 tons between them.
"North Korea has never particularly liked WFP monitors in country," said Stephan Haggard, a professor at the Graduate School of International Relations and Pacific Studies, UC-San Diego. "Pyongyang doesn't generally care for any penetration of the country."
Mr. Haggard co-authored a report on food aid to North Korea released Sept. 1 in Washington by the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea. He and co-author Marcus Noland found that North Korea diverts between 10 percent and 30 percent of the food aid it receives; some South Korean aid organizations complain that up to half goes to privileged groups.
The diversion does not only involve the North Korean military and Communist Party elite seizing grain for themselves. Rather, food is going into a system of informal and black markets that grew out of the famine, and have been partially legitimized through economic reforms. There it can fetch much higher prices than what is subject to price controls in the public distribution system. That creates incentives to divert food for political and military officials who direct the supply of aid.
North Korea's government distribution system only supplies about half the daily food needs of its people. Food bought on the market is helping make up the difference, but prices three to four times higher are hurting poorer North Koreans-under the auspices of "reforms" that have stratified society and entrenched elites.
For WFP, losing its food aid arrangement with Pyongyang is just the latest setback endured at the hands of the North Korean regime. The program has 40 international staff in the country but, like other nonprofits, is not allowed to have Korean-speaking staff. Government-supplied interpreters owe their first allegiance to the country's Flood Damage Rehabilitation Committee. Only last year were WFP staffers allowed to begin Korean-language lessons.
Access around the country is also limited: WFP is allowed in only 160 of 203 counties. For WFP staff, visiting distribution points can be bewildering. With official drivers ferrying them to different centers, aid workers cannot tell from the Korean signs if they are in the right place. In one case, the report said, workers suspected they had been taken to the same institution twice.
By contrast, China and South Korea issue few demands for accountability. China even delivers its food directly to the North Korean military, Messrs. Haggard and Noland reported, so that the international community cannot accuse Pyongyang of diverting its multilateral aid. South Korea presents its aid as a loan, though neither its leaders nor those in the North really expect repayment.
"With China and South Korea providing large amounts of loosely conditioned assistance, as one North Korean put it-referring to multilaterals such as the WFP-'Why should we bother?'" said Mr. Noland, a senior fellow at the Institute for International Economics.
A survey of 1,000 North Korean refugees underscored the difficulties of working there: Only 63 percent even knew that foreign aid was available in their country. Only 7 percent of them reported receiving any aid.
But even with food aid diverted and official obfuscation, some supplies are reaching vulnerable North Koreans. The partial diversion into the market also lowers food prices, which means not having WFP aid could raise the cost of food. An emerging class of urban workers outside Pyongyang, in particular, is growing more needy. "Important recipients of its aid-they're going to be hurt by this decision," Mr. Noland said. "The elite's not going to be hurt."
The potential exit of the WFP in North Korea would mean less scrutiny of Kim Jong Il's secretive regime, a win for party officials. With U.S. concessions in six-party talks as well, Mr. Kim had a successful month in September. The only losers, for now, are his barely subsistent citizens.