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.
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.
“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.”
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.”
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.”