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.

Lee Jin-man/AP
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.

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.

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.”

North Korea in February observes the birthday of leader Kim Jong-il, and in April the 100-year anniversary of his father, “Great Leader” Kim Il-sung, who ruled for nearly 50 years before dying in 1994. Kim Jong-il’s third son, heir-apparent Kim Jong-un, celebrates what North Korea is saying will be his 30th birthday in January – though he’s believed to be two years younger.

So the pressing issue is how tightly to link aid to human rights in a society in which at least 200,000 people are believed to be held in a brutal and sometimes deadly “gulag system.”

South Koreans remain outraged by the abduction of several thousand South Korean citizens over the years since the Korean War. Most of the abductees were fishermen whose boats strayed into North Korean waters. At the same time, more than 21,000 North Koreans have defected to South Korea since the end of the war, and the numbers are steadily rising.

“Some argue we should make use of this leverage,” says Oh Chung-suk, a director at the ministry of unification, responsible for dealings with the North.

South Korean analysts express doubts, however, about the extent of North Korea’s need.

North Korea has produced nearly 4 million tons of food this year, nearly as much as last year, but the distribution system guarantees only that the food goes to party and government officials, armed forces, and construction workers, while millions go hungry.

“North Korea suffers from a chronic shortage," says a unification ministry report quoted by South Korea’s Yonhap news agency, “but this year’s shortfall is not that serious.”

Nonetheless, some experts paint a grim picture.

A representative of Cap Anamur, a German group, reported “emaciated children and elderly women on the edge of the road stuffing weeds into their mouths,” and the English-language Korea Herald said there had been cases of cannibalism.

“Things are worse now than for some time,” says Tim Peters, a missionary now visiting China, after talking to defectors who have just crossed the Tumen River. “The need is very dire.”

US and South Korean officials acknowledge they were far from certain where the food was going during the decade of South Korea’s Sunshine policy of reconciliation, from 2000 to 2008, when shipments totaled several hundred thousand tons a year.

“The US and South Korea have never really monitored food,” says Won Jae-chun, a law professor here. “The US has to come up with a very clear-cut standard.”

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