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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.

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“I’m sure the economy is their primary concern,” says Lee Sang-yoon, professor at the Fletcher School at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. “Analysts see North Korea in its greatest crisis since the collapse of the Soviet Union.”

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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.

“North Korea is trying to seize the opportunity,” says Mr. Lee. “Now the atmospherics are to reach out to the United States.” Besides hoping to ease sanctions imposed by the UN after its missile and nuclear tests last year, he says the North’s objective "is to knock South Korea from under the US umbrella.”

Pessimism increases

Lee predicts “the usual damage-control diplomacy that’s been in place for the past 20 years” 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 “peace regime” for the Korean Peninsula, including withdrawal of the 28,500 US troops still here, along with “denuclearization,” a vague term that the North uses to include nuclear weapons aboard US ships in the Pacific.

North Korea’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 Workers’ Party at an special party conference in September.

Meanwhile, he says, “We are in a dilemma” in which “North Korea is taking a strong position toward South Korea.” He sees “no clear solution” and is “more and more pessimistic.”

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 “to address these shortages, including acceptance of needed international humanitarian assistance.”