(Photo: Reuters/KRT via Reuters TV)
In what is being described as a ground-breaking deal, North Korea has agreed to suspend its long-range missile and nuclear weapons tests at its nuclear sites in order to receive 264,000 tons of much-needed food aid from the U.S.
The decision, reached in talks last week in Beijing between U.S. and North Korean negotiators, will also halt North Korea's uranium enrichment program, the BBC reported Wednesday. The deal would mark a major policy shift by the Democratic People's Republic of Korea and possibly suggest that the country's new leader, Kim Jong-un, might be taking the country in a different direction than his father, dictator Kim Jong-il, who died in December 2011.
A great deal of speculation has surrounded Kim Jong-un's first decisions as leader of North Korea, and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told a Senate committee that the move constitutes a "modest first step" in improving relations between North Korea and the rest of the world and in long-standing talks of eliminating its nuclear weapons program.
"To improve the atmosphere for dialogue and demonstrate its commitment to denuclearization, North Korea has agreed to implement a moratorium on long-range missile launches, nuclear tests and nuclear activities at Yongbyon, including uranium enrichment activities," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland added in a statement to the committee.
North Korea, which has long struggled with famine and poverty, will now wait to receive 264,000 tons of food from the U.S., but according to the Kansas City Star, American officials will first want to ensure that this aid is going directly to civilians and isn not diverted to the North Korean military.
On the other end of the deal, North Korea will have to allow access for U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors to the Yongbyon nuclear complex. The deal comes just weeks before President Barack Obama joins 50 other heads of state in South Korea to review progress on his initiative to shut down nuclear weapon sites around the world by the end of 2014.
Human rights activists are still heavily focusing on North Korea for other issues, however, as 30 or so North Korean refugees in China are currently facing the serious threat of persecution and even death back in their home country for running away during the official mourning period for Kim Jong-il.
The North Korea Freedom Coalition is urging people from across the world to write letters to Chinese embassies and government buildings urging Chinese President Hu Jintao to save the refugees' lives and not send them back to North Korea.