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Insight: Obama's North Korean leap of faith falls short

North Korea, March 30, 2012

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Andrew Quinn

March, 2012

When U.S. diplomats filed into North Korea's grim embassy in Beijing last month they found an unlikely surprise: Starbucks.

Their hosts, led by North Korean's chief nuclear negotiator Kim Kye-gwan, had ordered U.S.-style coffee for talks both sides hoped would lead to new negotiations on Pyongyang's nuclear program and to resumed U.S. food shipments to one of the most feared and secretive countries in the world.

There were more surprises to come.

Five days later, the United States and North Korea simultaneously unveiled a unique and potentially far-reaching agreement, dubbed the "Leap Day" deal because it was announced on February 29 - that chronological oddity that occurs only every fourth year.

North Korea promised a moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile tests, and to open itself to new international inspections....

...Unlike earlier aid programs, which saw mostly basic grains shipped to North Korea, the new focus sought to provide help to those left most vulnerable by Pyongyang's disastrous economic policies and crippled harvests: infants, children, pregnant and nursing mothers and the chronically ill.

The program would also have opened North Korea to more foreign aid workers - U.S. aid groups were hoping to see international staffing triple to about 45 from just 15 in 2008-9 - and new nutritional monitoring methods including physical measurements to ensure that aid recipients were getting fed.

"This would be a big leap forward in what we have been able to do," said Jim White, vice president of operations for Mercy Corps, which has extensive experience in North Korea and was one of the aid groups preparing to implement the new U.S. program.