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North Korea Agrees to Suspend Nuclear Work for U.S. Food Aid Swap

February 29, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
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JUDY WOODRUFF: From Washington and Pyongyang came word today of a new deal to freeze North Korea’s nuclear program. It would come in exchange for food assistance from the U.S.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton confirmed the agreement at a congressional hearing this morning.

SECRETARY OF STATE HILLARY CLINTON: Today’s announcement represents a modest first step in the right direction. We, of course, will be watching closely and judging North Korea’s new leaders by their actions.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Under the deal, North Korea agreed to put in place a moratorium on long-range missile launches and to suspend work to enrich uranium at its Yongbyon nuclear facility. The North also promised to allow the return of U.N. nuclear inspectors to verify its claims for the first time since 2009.

For its part, the United States will provide some 240,000 metric tons of food aid. The agreement followed talks in China last week between U.S. and North Korean negotiators. It was the first such meeting since North Korea’s longtime ruler, Kim Jong-il, died in December and was succeeded by his son, Kim Jong-un.

Secretary Clinton today called it a reminder that the world is transforming.

HILLARY CLINTON: The United States, I will be quick to add, still has profound concerns. But on the occasion of Kim Jong-il’s death, I said that it is our hope that the new leadership will choose to guide their nation onto the path of peace by living up to its obligations.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In 1994, former President Jimmy Carter, acting for the Clinton administration, brokered a deal for Pyongyang to shut down nuclear plants in exchange for U.S. aid in building electrical power plants.

The Yongbyon plant remained closed until 2002, when both sides accused the other of not living up to the agreement. From there, the North went on to test-fire long-range missiles and conduct its first underground nuclear test.

In 2007, the Bush administration, along with South Korea, Russia, China and Japan, negotiated a new halt to North Korea’s nuclear program. This time, North Korea again agreed to disable the complex at Yongbyon, and it received one million tons of fuel. The disabling was halted months later, though, after the U.S. and North Koreans were unable to agree on verification measures.

Given that history, White House spokesman Jay Carney was asked today about prospects for this new arrangement.

JAY CARNEY, White House press secretary: The agreements that the North Koreans have made are very welcome, but, obviously, they need to be followed up by actions. And commitments to do something are one thing. Actually doing them are another. So we will pursue this policy area with that approach in mind.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For now, word that North Korea will step back from nuclear weapons work was welcomed today in Japan and South Korea.