DAVID GREENE, HOST:
North Korea agreed, last month, to freeze uranium enrichment and missile tests in exchange for large amounts of food aid from the United States. American officials thought they had an understanding, but then last week North Korea announced it would be launching a satellite using a long-range missile. As NPR's Mike Shuster reports from Seoul, all this is now threatening to overshadow next week's global nuclear security summit in Seoul, which President Obama is planning to attend.
MIKE SHUSTER, BYLINE: For years, the U.S. has been trying to persuade North Korea to stop its production of nuclear weapons and the missiles that could carry warheads. On February 29, it looked like North Korea was willing to take a step in that direction. Pyongyang announced it would freeze uranium enrichment and its long-range missile tests. The U.S., for its part, said it would deliver some 240,000 metric tons of food aid.
Then a week ago, the north said it planned a rocket launch to put a satellite in orbit sometime in the middle of April. State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland called that highly provocative.
VICTORIA NULAND: This calls into question whether when the DPRK entered into that agreement with us, they did so in good faith.
SHUSTER: Resolutions of the U.N. Security Council expressly prohibit the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea, or North Korea, from launching missiles or rockets. The North Koreans claim a rocket launch is not the same as a missile test. Not a persuasive argument, says Evans Revere, a former State Department official who has regular contact with North Korean diplomats.
EVANS REVERE: A missile freeze includes missiles in the broadest sense of the word, including those used to launch satellites. So there's no doubt in my mind that the North Koreans were aware of that.
SHUSTER: But the North Koreans told Revere well before the February 29th agreement that they planned a rocket launch. They also told U.S. officials who were negotiating the deal. Everyone on the American side urged them not to do it. In December, Kim Jong Il died and his son Kim Jong Un took over. Evans Revere said that based on recent meetings with the North Koreans, he was convinced the new leadership in Pyongyang intended to retain some nuclear weapons.
REVERE: It was very clear to me, and I think it was very clear to every other U.S. interlocutor who was present in that room, that the DPRK intended to retain a certain level of nuclear weapons capability for a long time to come.
SHUSTER: The February 29th agreement would also allow inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency back to monitor a former secret uranium enrichment facility. The North Koreans claim it will make low enriched uranium for a reactor, not highly enriched uranium for bombs. Inspections would be a benefit, for the North Koreans as well as the U.S., says Daniel Sneider, from Stanford University's Asia-Pacific Research Center.
DANIEL SNEIDER: They have every reason in some sense to want to certify all this in front of the IAEA, because they want to get acceptance of this as a legitimate program.
SHUSTER: There has been a good deal of debate about whether the U.S. should have entered into these negotiations given Pyongyang's propensity for violating agreements it makes. But says Sneider, it was worth it to test the intentions of the new leadership in Pyongyang.
SNEIDER: It's useful from an American point-of-view to have tested the new government to see whether there was a shift in policy. And I think there isn't one.
SHUSTER: This new trouble with North Korea comes just as President Obama is getting ready to fly here to Seoul for a global summit on nuclear security. Inevitably, the talks will turn to North Korea, although it is not explicitly on the agenda.
Just two days ago, Pyongyang announced if the gathering adopts any statement criticizing the North that would be seen as a declaration of war. North Korea routinely issues bellicose statements like this. But it is not the kind of atmosphere the U.S. and others would prefer as the opening of the summit approaches.
Mike Shuster, NPR News, Seoul.
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