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 Korea are reopening a historic avenue for direct negotiations.Skip to next paragraph
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At the “truce village” 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 China is protesting as a threat to its territorial interests. On a broader level, however, the talks at Panmunjom reflect North Korea’s desire to appear in a mood for reconciliation while suffering steadily worsening shortages of food and essential supplies.
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 Korea’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 “the crumbling state of health care in North Korea” that said the North’s “delayed and inadequate response to the food crisis has significantly affected people’s health.” The problem for North Korea is “compounded,” according to the report, “by the government’s reluctance to seek international cooperation and assistance” along with “spiraling inflation” that has “aggravated food shortages and sparked social unrest.”
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.