TOKYO, Japan — Kim Jong Il's unexpected death last month came just as the US and North Korea were reportedly poised to agree on a deal that would see the
regime take steps toward dismantling its nuclear weapons program in return for food aid and a temporary lifting of sanctions.
Despite vows that his son, Kim Jong Un, would continue his father's military-first policy and refuse to negotiate with the South, there are signs that an aid agreement with the US is again in the offing.
This week, the North indicated it was open to the idea of suspending its uranium enrichment program in exchange for aid from the US.
All the North was waiting for, it said, was a goodwill gesture from Washington, perhaps in the form of an improved offer that includes rice and not just nutritional supplements.
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The announcement, made though an unnamed foreign ministry spokesman in Pyongyang, surprised some who believed Kim Jong Un would demonstrate his leadership credentials in less subtle ways.
Washington's official position remains unchanged — that North Korea's pressing food problem was separate from nuclear negotiations. Instead, the US and South Korea insist that the regime begin dismantling its nuclear program as a precondition to the resumption of aid.
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Yet North Korea may yet revert to the familiar tactic of concentrating the minds of foreign leaders with an act of provocation, according to a Seoul-based think-tank.
The government-affiliated Institute for Foreign Affairs and National Security warned that the North could conduct a third nuclear test or test-launch a long-range missile, possibly at the height of the US presidential elections later this year.
North Korea has also dismissed UN agency reports that 6 million of its people — a quarter of the population — require urgent aid and that children are suffering from acute malnutrition.
The foreign ministry statement accused "hostile forces" of spreading "unsavory rumors" suggesting the North had been begging for food aid since Kim Jong Il's death.