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
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
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
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
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.