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     Jul 17, 2010
North Korea's desperate measures
By Donald Kirk

WASHINGTON - Behind brave blasts of bombast and bluster, North Korea has one urgent reason for wanting to renew six-party talks on its nuclear program and separate meetings with an American general at the truce village of Panmunjom.

The overwhelming problem for the North is the nation is now on the verge of its worst famine since the mid-1990s when approximately two million people are believed to have died of starvation and disease. "Food shortages and a more general economic crisis have persisted to this day," according to a report released this week by Amnesty International. The North's "delayed and inadequate response to the food crisis has significantly affected people's health".

The Amnesty report quotes an assessment by the World Food


Program (WFP) that belies the victorious tone of North Korean rhetoric since the United Nations Security Council issued a watered-down statement that avoided holding the North responsible for the torpedo attack in March on a South Korean ship in the Yellow Sea that killed 46 sailors. "The progressive improvement in food security" in the first half of this decade "has been reversed in recent years", said the WFP. "The country's reliance on external food supplies is again increasing."

The question, as always, is where to find the food, and one answer, as far as North Korea is concerned, is to undo some of the damage done by the cutoff of trade and aid from South Korea, from UN sanctions imposed after the long-range missile and nuclear tests of 2007 - and, above all, to get the nations in the six-party talks to approve a tremendous aid package in return for another promise to stop the nuclear program.

Recovering the ground lost over the past year or two of worsening recriminations will be difficult, but the Amnesty report, focusing on "the crumbling state of health care in North Korea", offers dramatic testimony of just why and how North Korea has again plunged into such a desperate condition.

"The government has resolutely maintained that it is committed to, and capable of, providing for the basic needs of its people and satisfying their right to food and a proper standard of health," according to the report, concluding, "Food insecurity remains a critical concern for millions of North Koreans." The problem is exacerbated, the report added, "by the government's reluctance to seek international cooperation and assistance" and "its restrictions on the delivery of humanitarian assistance".

The Amnesty report confirms and synthesizes the horrifying evidence of dozens of North Korean defectors as well as the sensational revelations of Norbert Vollertsen, a German doctor who worked in North Korea for more than a year in the late 1990s before the North Koreans expelled him. Dr Vollertsen, now back in Germany, crusaded for years in South Korea on the topic of North Korean abuses, citing extreme shortages of medicine and unspeakably cruel treatments in hospitals and clinics.

Amnesty documents "how widespread and chronic malnutrition, which suppressed people's immune system, has triggered epidemics and mass outbreaks of illnesses related to poor diet." "Interviews with North Koreans depict a country that professes to have a universal free health care system but in reality struggles to provide even the most basic service to the population." Said the report: "Health facilities are rundown and operate with frequent power cuts and no heat" while health workers "often do not receive salaries and many hospitals function without medicines and other essentials". Against this background, it said, "doctors have begin charging for their services, which is illegal under North Korea's universal health care system" and "the poor cannot access full medical care, especially medicines and surgery".

Simply by showing an interest in six-party talks, North Korea is inspiring a positive response in Washington - so much so that some diplomatic observers would not be surprised to see the North returning to six-party talks in August or September after a break of nearly two years. The US couched its response in lingo that appeared ritualistic in its tut-tutting over the North's behavior but clearly showed relief that talks might actually happen.

Or, as Kurt Campbell, US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific, put it, "We are prepared under the right circumstances to sit down in a dialogue with North Korea," adding that "We do not want to talk for talking's sake". North Korea has to show it "rejects its provocative ways and embraces a path toward denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula".

North Korea undoubtedly will make just the right noises while the US and China do their best to get around a definite annoyance in the form of the war games that the US has been saying it's going to hold with the South Koreans in the very near future. In the face of all US assurances, the Chinese persist in seeing the exercises as a show of force directed against China as well as North Korea, but the US and China have fashioned a bargain that should ease the pain.

In return for the sense that China will rekindle the embers of the negotiations, and hold the North Koreans in check, the US and South Korea say there's no reason to have to stage the exercises off the Korean west coast in the Yellow Sea near where the Cheonan went down in March. Instead, why not have the nuclear-powered submarine George Washington, by far the most intimidating element in the area, conduct exercises off the Korean east coast? Basically, only South Korean vessels, already in the Yellow Sea, need exercise in the Yellow Sea.

With the exercises fast fading in significance, the Americans and Chinese have been falling all over themselves to appear pleasant and understanding.

A Chinese spokesman turned the other cheek to the idea that China should stage counter-exercises, saying to do so would suggest "dividing the region into different military alliances and viewing regional security from an angle of opposition and confrontation". And over at the Pentagon, a spokesman said the joint exercises would "send a clear message of deterrence to North Korea" even if held off the east coast.

The jolly voice of the Pentagon came up with yet another reason why the George Washington would not be flexing its muscles in the Yellow Sea; namely, its home port was at the US base in Yokosuka, south of Tokyo, and by exercising off the Korean east coast instead it would "spend more time training and less time just traveling".

With China adopting a somewhat conciliatory tone, North Korean protests were likely to be ritualistic. North Korea by now would prefer to get talks going - beginning with a meeting of generals at Panmunjom under terms of the 1953 Korean War armistice. North Korea's goal remains where it has always been - to replace the armistice with a peace treaty, to call for a "peace regime" over the Korean Peninsula and withdrawal of US troops, and to press for "denuclearization" without giving up its nukes.

The fact that North Korea wants to talk at all, though, represents a shift. The latest Amnesty report helps explain why. Conditions in North Korea, said Norma Kang Muico, releasing the report in Seoul, have worsened while the isolationist regime has spurned foreign intervention. She called on North Korea to begin "to address these shortages, including acceptance of needed international humanitarian assistance".

The report included numerous sensational examples of cruel treatment to which North Koreans in need of medical care are routinely subjected. In one case, said the report, a man, aged 24, had part of a leg amputated without anesthesia. The report quoted him as saying that five people "held my arms and legs down to keep me from moving" as "I screamed and eventually fainted from the pain".

North Korea "has failed to adequately address the country's ongoing food shortages since the 1990s", said the report, estimating health care expenditures at less than US$1 per year for each of the country's 24 million people.

By now, the question of adequate nutrition and medicine is reaching the elite, adding to the urgency of seeing about wangling donations from South Korea and the West. China, the North's only real ally, is no doubt filling part of the gap, keeping the regime on life support but not much more.

Donald Kirk, a long-time journalist in Asia, is author of the newly published Korea Betrayed: Kim Dae Jung and Sunshine.

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(24 hours to 11:59pm ET, Jul 15, 2010)


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