As he entered office in 2009, U.S. President Barack Obama appeared to be breaking with his two predecessors and taking a harder line on nuclear-armed North Korea.
His stand was understandable as North Korea had abandoned or reneged on all aid for nuclear disarmament deals reached with the administrations of President Bill Clinton and President George W. Bush.
“Clinton bought it once, Bush bought it again, and we’re not going to buy it a third time,” one of Obama’s chief strategists was quoted saying then.
Against this backdrop, one has to excuse skeptics of the nuclear deal announced Wednesday between the Obama administration and the Kim Jong Un regime in which Pyongyang agreed to suspend its nuclear program and its long-range missile and atomic tests in return for U.S. food aid.
Still, some experts say Obama had few choices despite the long held belief that North Korea will not give away its nuclear weapons—the only bargaining chip available to the impoverished and resource-starved country.
"This will probably be the political criticism of today’s announcement. But if the choice is between declaring with arms folded that you won’t buy the horse again or trying to cap a runaway nuclear program, the latter may well make sense," said Victor Cha, an Asia chief at the White House during the Bush administration.
"Negotiating with North Korea is always about choosing between bad options. The choice is between watching a runaway nuclear program or holding your nose and negotiating with the regime. Obama chose to do the latter," said Cha, now an analyst at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
The nuclear deal announced simultaneously Wednesday by the U.S. State Department and the North Korean Foreign Ministry was reached after the first meeting—in Beijing—between the two countries following dictator Kim Jong Il's death and the ascension of his youngest son two months ago.
Washington said it would provide at least 240,000 metric tons of food aid to the hardline communist state, which has promised to freeze its nuclear activities, including uranium enrichment, and to allow in U.N. inspectors.
The North Korean regime is in desperate need of food ahead of mass celebrations for Kim Jong Il's father and North Korea's founder Kim Il Sung's 100th birth anniversary on April 15.
Along with suspending nuclear weapon activities, North Korea has said it would allow atomic inspectors from the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to visit its Yongbyon nuclear complex to verify that the moratorium on uranium enrichment has been enforced.
"These are concrete measures that we consider a positive first step toward complete and verifiable denuclearization of the Korean peninsula in a peaceful manner," Obama's spokesman Jay Carney said.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Washington "still has profound concerns" and "will be watching closely and judging North Korea's new leaders by their actions."
The announcement Wednesday however did not directly address Pyongyang's tensions with key ally South Korea, which could delay a resumption of Six-Party talks among China, U.S., South Korea, Japan, Russia and North Korea aimed at ending Pyongyang's nuclear weapons drive.
The United States has previously demanded that the North repair ties with the South before any progress could be achieved between Washington and Pyongyang.
North Korea staged a deadly artillery attack on the South in November 2010, the worst violence since the Korean War in the 1950s, and was blamed for the sinking of one of South Korea's warships a year ago that left 46 sailors dead.
"One immediate sticking point not addressed in the two statements is that North Korea has turned up the decibel level of its attacks on South Korea’s Lee Myung-bak administration in recent weeks despite past U.S. insistence that stabilization of inter-Korean relations is also a prerequisite for the Six-Party talks to move forward," said Scott Snyder, a Korea expert at the Washington-based Council on Foreign Relations.
"Given the vituperative rhetoric that the North has directed toward the Lee administration in recent weeks and North Korea’s failure to acknowledge its 2010 provocations against South Korea, this is an additional issue that must be addressed as part of any return to the Six-Party Talks," he said.
A U.S. administration official said that Washington had stressed to the North Koreans in the latest talks "that it’s vital, it’s essential that the North takes steps to improve North-South relations.
"That’s got to happen before there’s any fundamental change in certainly the U.S.-DPRK [North Korea] relationship, and we fully expect that those steps will be taken in a context of any return to Six-Party talks," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Snyder said even if Six Party Talks reconvene in the coming months after a three-year hiatus, almost all the participants face political transitions during the remainder of 2012, making it unlikely that the talks will make significant progress this year even if they do restart.
Obama faces reelection in November while the Chinese top leadership faces a once-in-a-decade transition beginning also late this year.
The U.S.-North Korea deal may also be “limited” in other respects.
An IAEA monitored shutdown of uranium enrichment facilities at North Korea's Yongbyun nuclear complex does not preclude the likelihood that North Korea may be pursuing uranium enrichment at other facilities inside North Korea, Snyder said.
In late 2010, North Korea unveiled a uranium enrichment facility that could give North Korea a second route to manufacture nuclear weapons in addition to its longstanding plutonium-based program which is believed to have produced enough material for six to eight bombs.
Still, the new agreement may help prevent tensions that may spin out of control during a period of domestic political uncertainty in both countries.
"Tactically, it makes sense for both sides," said Cha.
"The Obama administration wants to get a handle on a runaway nuclear program and wants to avoid any DPRK crisis in an election year," he said.
A study at Cha's CSIS think tank shows that since 1984, the North, except once, had not engaged in provocations when it was in the middle of negotiations with the United States.
For North Korea, he said, the deal was key because it wants to demonstrate a continuity of leadership, and it wants food for the April 15 celebrations.
But questions have arisen on whether food has become a bargaining chip in Washington's efforts to contain Pyongyang's drive for nuclear weapons.
On Tuesday, a day before the deal was announced, a U.S. military commander said conditions being discussed for food aid resumption included talks on ending North Korea's nuclear program.
This appears to violate official U.S. policy, where the nuclear program is separate from the provision of food aid.
"There are conditions that are going along with the negotiations with regard to the extent of food aid," Admiral Robert Willard, head of U.S. Pacific Command, which covers Asia, told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Willard said "preconditions" for assistance "now include discussions of cessation of nuclearization and ballistic missile testing and the allowance of IAEA perhaps back into Yongbyon."
But U.S. officials, briefing the media on Wednesday on the nuclear deal, took pains to reject any notion that it was a food-for-nukes agreement, maintaining that decisions on humanitarian assistance are independent of political factors.
In the new deal however, North Korea made the link.
"We haven't done it, but the North has, because they, I think, take a very transactional approach to this stuff," one U.S. official said.
North Korea has siphoned off previous food aid to feed its million-strong army and the elite.
The U.S. said Wednesday that the food to be provided under the new deal would include a corn-soy blend, pulses, vegetable oil and ready-to-eat therapeutic meals all designed for children under five or six years old or expectant mothers.
"This will be the most comprehensively monitored and managed program since the U.S. began assistance to the DRPK in the mid-1990s," the U.S. official said.