Once again, the vast majority of the world finds itself angered and embarrassed by the actions of one small nation on the Korean Peninsula. A very short-lived U.S. deal promising food aid in exchange for access to North Korea’s nuclear program has unraveled due to the recently failed North Korean launch of a rocket, a launch that was widely suspected of being a test for a long-range missile. If this keeps happening to the U.S. and her allies, was it ever really worth it to have dealt with this antagonistic nation again and again (and again)? In order to learn more about the new regime, this time, perhaps it was.
Since the time Kim Il Sung took power in the late 1940’s North Korea has not been known as a calm and rational actor. It was Kim Il Sung that helped push the USSR to agree to war with South Korea in 1950. His son, Kim Jong Il, was long famous for his quirky personality and aggressive behavior, whether it be a push for nuclear weapons while his people were starving, to the sinking of the South Korean navy ship Cheonan not very long ago.
Now, unsurprisingly, Kim Jong Il's son, Kim Jong Un, has followed in his father’s footsteps. In response to the U.S. suspending food aid due to North Korea’s recently failed rocket launch , North Korea has decided it will not adhere to a deal agreed to in February, while also vaguely warning of future "retaliatory measures."
In this situation, there is very little that the U.S. or its allies can do. The total amount of food aid promised was 250,000 tons. That’s a lot of rice and grain, but it doesn’t give a lot of leverage against a totalitarian regime. The only country that does have any leverage is North Korea's neighbor, China, and even this is limited. China supplies tons of food, fuel, and ammunition (among other things) to the North Koreans, yet they remain frustrated with their "ally." Even for the Chinese, North Korea is still a rogue regime, often defying their benefactor’s wishes because they know that the PRC government won’t cut off supplies and risk the fall of the Stalinist regime in Pyongyang.
So was this initial deal of food aid for access to North Korea’s nuclear program worth it? Yes, but obviously not because the deal worked. With the assumption of power by a new leader in a totalitarian nation, it is nearly impossible to foresee which direction Kim Jong Un would have taken his country, or if he was the one that was even in power. Now we know that Kim at least supports the hard-line position of many of his military commanders.
In figuring this out, the U.S. has lost nothing more than some extra food and a bit of face perhaps, neither of which is significant by any means. The sequence of events has also set out a precedent of what type of actions to expect from Kim Jong Un’s regime, and next time, aid will not be so forthcoming. It may seem like the deal failed, but the information learned about the new regime of the Hermit Kingdom made it more than worth it.