Surprise can come in two big packages labeled pleasant and unpleasant. North Korea’s announcement that it has agreed to suspend enrichment and long-range missile flight tests while resuming IAEA inspections clearly falls in the first category. If Pyongyang reneges on these pledges in due course, after haggling for something, the result will be unpleasant, but not a surprise. The announced moratorium on nuclear testing now links North Korea’s declaratory policy with that of India and Pakistan. Renewed testing remains a possibility, but breaking this pledge will probably entail higher costs.

I enjoy the luxury of leaving to others the hard work of dealing with North Korea. Joel Wit has been chewing on this tough nut since 1993, when he worked at the State Department on the Agreed Framework. He has also worked on KEDO. He has visited the North maybe fifteen times, and is the co-author of three books: Going Critical: The First North Korean Nuclear Crisis (2004), Preparing for Sudden Change in North Korea (2009) and North Korean Reform: Politics, Economics and Security (2010).

I asked Joel for his take on the announcement:

By now everyone has seen the new US-DPRK agreement characterized by the Obama administration as a modest step forward. It seems every time the US and DPRK negotiate, someone always resorts to the old Asian proverb, “the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” This agreement is definitely a single step.

But it is an important step for three reasons. First, it buys us time. Another North Korean nuclear test that could trigger a DPRK announcement that it has miniaturized warheads for its missiles would only make a bad situation much worse. This result puts that day off at least a little bit into the future and maybe even longer depending on progress made in further talks.

Second, aside from stopping activity at the one uranium enrichment plant in the DPRK we know about, if inspectors are allowed to verify the suspension of its operation, the international community might be able to learn more about the program. As everyone knows, only one group of foreigners has seen the inside of the facility and then only briefly. What is interesting is that the North Koreans know monitoring will reveal more information about this facility and their capabilities. Why are they taking this step? It’s hard to say.

Finally, this arrangement may help build a foundation for further progress in stopping, and eventually rolling back the DPRK nuclear effort. In the circles I move in, the people who chatter most about North Korea are almost all regional experts. They talk about “denuclearization” not knowing that process can’t happen overnight, particularly with a program that is almost five decades old. (This isn’t Libya!) It will require freezing and rolling back first and that will take time.

In reading the two unilateral statements, a number of potential problems are clear. Food deliveries will not be a problem since much of the details are already worked out. Implementation of the moratorium, however, may prove difficult since it requires the DPRK and IAEA to work out the monitoring measures, particularly at the Yongbyon uranium enrichment plant. There is a lot of bad blood between the two although, if they are really serious, the North Koreans can be on their best behavior. As a State Department official who often played go-between for Vienna and Pyongyang in the 1990s, I saw the DPRK’s behavior turn on a dime when it felt cooperating with the IAEA was in its interests.

Just as, if not more significant, are the DPRK’s unilateral statement makes it clear for anyone who didn’t already realize this that there are going to be serious problems in negotiating further agreements if the Six Party Talks resume. The statement stakes out the North’s going in position, “priority will be given to the discussion of issues concerning the lifting of sanctions on the DPRK and provision of light-water reactors,” which is troublesome. In particular, there is virtually no support for the provision of LWRs to the North. Yet, Pyongyang insists that must happen if it is to give up its uranium enrichment program and nuclear weapons.

One might ask why has this agreement been reached until now? It’s a good question. All the Washington talking heads have been opining that nothing was going to happen in talks with North Korea since this is an election year in the U.S. and Pyongyang has little interest in reaching new agreements. So the agreement came as a big surprise to many of them. It’s hard to say what is going on inside an administration that has played its cards close to its chest except that it now understands its policy of “strategic patience,” trying to convince Pyongyang to change its bad behavior through pressure and isolation, has failed. Pressure and isolation are fine, but without reaching out through diplomacy they are a dead end.

On why the North would make this move, it’s not surprising to find the same “hyper-analysis” on North Korea that permeates the media all the time working its way into this story. Some silly people think the agreement proves that “strategic patience” has worked and Pyongyang is crying uncle. More thoughtful analysts believe the North’s chess move may reflect a desire to escape the Chinese bear hug reflected by a relationship today that is the closest it has been for decades. Others see it as a tactical step made because the North wants to maintain a calm external environment during the first year of its leadership transition. Still others believe the North agreed to a moratorium since it really isn’t ready to conduct more nuclear or missile tests and needs time to do more work on its enrichment program at facilities that are located somewhere other Yongbyon. All of these explanations are possible.