North Korea meets with US as food shortages hammer North
Amnesty International's report on the poor state of health care in North Korea may be a contributing factor in why North Korea accepted a UN proposal for leaders to meet face-to-face.
Amid rising tensions over US plans to go through with naval exercises with South Korea in the wake of the sinking of a South Korean naval vessel by North Korea in March, the United States and North KoreaÂ are reopening a historic avenue for direct negotiations.
At the â€śtruce villageâ€ť of Panmunjom, in a one-room structure 40 miles north of Seoul on the line between the two Koreas, a US colonel from the United Nations Command and a North Korean counterpart chatted Thursday for 90 minutes. The purpose of the meeting, the first on that level in more than a year, was to prepare for talks between generals that are sure to turn into a test of will over US policy on Korea.
A critical initial issue will be the depth of the US commitment to the naval exercises that the Americans and South Koreans are planning in the near future but that ChinaÂ is protesting as a threat to its territorial interests. On a broader level, however, the talks at Panmunjom reflect North Koreaâ€™s desire to appear in a mood for reconciliation while suffering steadily worsening shortages of food and essential supplies.
â€śItâ€™s time for North Korea to be good,â€ť says Kim Tae-woo, senior fellow at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses. â€śThere is a sense North Korea is suffering from worsening economic difficulties.â€ť
The US has downgraded the war games by announcing that the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier George Washington will not venture into the Yellow Sea where the South Korean Cheonan went down in March, losing 46 sailors. Instead, the George Washington will join the war games on the opposite side of the Korean Peninsula, off South Koreaâ€™s east coast, while South Korean vessels continue routine exercises in the Yellow Sea.
While the colonels met in Panmunjom, Amnesty International on Thursday released a report on â€śthe crumbling state of health care in North Koreaâ€ť that said the Northâ€™s â€śdelayed and inadequate response to the food crisis has significantly affected peopleâ€™s health.â€ť The problem for North Korea is â€ścompounded,â€ť according to the report, â€śby the governmentâ€™s reluctance to seek international cooperation and assistanceâ€ť along with â€śspiraling inflationâ€ť that has â€śaggravated food shortages and sparked social unrest.â€ť
North's economy exacerbates problems
North Korea agreed to the talks only after the United Nations Security Council issued a watered-down statement last week that failed to hold the North Koreans responsible for the attack on the Cheonan. The statement took note of an investigation, led by South Korea and including investigators from the US, Britain, Australia, and Sweden, that blamed North Korea but also quoted the North Korean denial before simply condemning the attack in general terms.
â€śIâ€™m sure the economy is their primary concern,â€ť says Lee Sang-yoon, professor at the Fletcher School at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. â€śAnalysts see North Korea in its greatest crisis since the collapse of the Soviet Union.â€ť
North Korea, he believes, is coordinating with China on the strategy of moving from the Cheonan issue to talk with the US and also to six-party negotiations, hosted by China, on its nuclear program.
â€śNorth Korea is trying to seize the opportunity,â€ť says Mr. Lee. â€śNow the atmospherics are to reach out to the United States.â€ť Besides hoping to ease sanctions imposed by the UN after its missile and nuclear tests last year, he says the Northâ€™s objective "is to knock South Korea from under the US umbrella.â€ť
Lee predicts â€śthe usual damage-control diplomacy thatâ€™s been in place for the past 20 yearsâ€ť in which the major participants stage negotiations and then wind up in agreements that fail to resolve basic issues. North Korea is sure, he believes, to demand a â€śpeace regimeâ€ť for the Korean Peninsula, including withdrawal of the 28,500 US troops still here, along with â€śdenuclearization,â€ť a vague term that the North uses to include nuclear weapons aboard US ships in the Pacific.
North Koreaâ€™s extreme isolation makes significant shifts in attitudes highly unlikely while leader Kim Jong-il, reportedly under the care of a team of Chinese doctors, prepares for his youngest son, Kim Jong-eun, to succeed him.
Choi Jin-wook, senior North Korea expert at the Korea Institute for National Unification, believes Kim Jong-eun will be elected to the politburo of the ruling Workersâ€™ Party at an special party conference in September.
Meanwhile, he says, â€śWe are in a dilemmaâ€ť in which â€śNorth Korea is taking a strong position toward South Korea.â€ť He sees â€śno clear solutionâ€ť and is â€śmore and more pessimistic.â€ť
The Amnesty report helps explain why. Conditions in North Korea, says Norma Kang Muico, who did most of the research and writing for the report, have worsened while the isolationist regime spurns foreign intervention. As an example of the fate that awaits North Koreans in need of medical care, for example, the Amnesty report cited the case of a young man who had part of a leg amputated without anesthesia.
Ms. Muico called on North Korea to begin â€śto address these shortages, including acceptance of needed international humanitarian assistance.â€ť