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North Korea envoy ties food aid to human rights

As North Korea faces ongoing food shortages, the US appears closer to providing food aid amid hopes for movement on six-party nuclear talks.

By Donald KirkCorrespondent / September 19, 2011

US special envoy for North Korea, Robert King (l.) talks with South Korea's top nuclear envoy Wi Sung-lac at Foreign Ministry in Seoul, South Korea, Monday, Sept. 19. King arrived here Monday for talks that analysts believe are to persuade reluctant South Korean leaders to go along with food aid to the North.

Lee Jin-man/AP

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Seoul, South Korea

Diplomacy on North Korea’s nuclear program is rapidly gaining momentum this week in tandem with debate on resuming food aid for the country's long suffering people.

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Robert King, US special envoy for North Korea, arrived here Monday for talks that analysts believe are to persuade reluctant South Korean leaders to go along with food aid to the North. He’s tying his mission to the question of North Korea’s record on human rights, about which he says the US “remains deeply concerned.”

How North Korea responds, Mr. King warns, “will have a significant impact” on US policy vis-à-vis North Korea.

Analysts see King’s talks as timed for talks in Beijing between North and South Korea’s nuclear negotiators. South Korea’s Wi Sung-lac and North Korea’s Ri Yong-ho meet Wednesday in a potential breakthrough to resumption of six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear program, last held in Beijing nearly three years ago.

“King wants to provide aid for North Korea,” says Choi Jin-wook, long-time North Korea watcher at the Korea Institute for National Unification. The Americans, he says, have been waiting for South Korea to agree to a return to the large-scale shipments of food and fertilizer that South Korea’s President Lee Myung-bak halted at the outset of his five-year term in early 2008.

While six-party talks – hosted by China and including the US, Japan, Russia, and the two Koreas – deal with North Korea’s nuclear program, there is little prospect that North Korea will do away with its arsenal. North Korea has twice conducted underground nuclear tests, in October 2006 and May 2009, is believed to have fabricated material for up to a dozen warheads and is building a new reactor for highly enriched uranium.

Against this background, analysts believe North Korea sees negotiations as a wedge to obtaining food on the way to its goal of proving it’s a strong and prosperous nation.

“North Korea’s foremost concern is regime stability,” says Mr. Choi. The North “wants to consolidate the power transition to Kim Jong-un. It also needs to successfully hold political festivals next year. For all these, North Korea needs sufficient food.”

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