Friday, January 13, 2012

North Korea Addresses Food Assistance and Nuclear Weapons

NYT: North Korea Open to Talks on Nuclear Program
USA Today: North Korea Keeps Door Open for Food-Nuke Deal with U.S.
WSJ: North Korea Accuses U.S. of Politicizing Food Aid

In its first statement addressed to the United States since Kim Jong-il’s death on December 17th, North Korea—now headed by Jong Il’s son, Kim Jong-un—accused the US of “politicizing” the issue of food assistance. The statement condemned the United States’ insistence on North Korea halting its uranium-enrichment program as a condition to food assistance. It did, however, indicate that North Korea may be willing to engage the U.S. in future negotiations.

The U.S. first agreed to deliver food assistance to North Korea in 2008 when it promised to provide 500,000 tons of grain. The U.S. delivered 170,000 tons to North Korea in 2008, but the food-assistance program ended in 2009. Nuclear testing in North Korea was the main reason U.S. ended its aid disbursement, but the U.S. was also concerned that the government was distributing the food to the relatively well-fed military rather than North Korea’s impoverished citizens.

During the last year, North Korea and the United States have held negotiations for an aid-for-nuclear-disarmament agreement. The countries were on the verge of a deal prior to Jong-il’s December death which would have, according the U.S., provided “nutritional assistance” (vitamin supplements, nutrition bars, and snacks) to children in exchange for North Korea’s agreement to suspend its uranium-enrichment program. However, the negotiations stalled in December as North Korea began an official mourning period for Jong-il.

Currently, it is unclear whether any deal is imminent. In its statement, North Korea accused the U.S. of “drastically” changing the type of food assistance from the initially-promised grain to what the U.S. now calls “nutritional assistance.” Oddly, however, the statement also suggested that North Korea has not requested food at all, saying the “hostile forces are spreading unsavory slander” in reporting that North Korea had requested food assistance from the United States. Apparently, the “unsavory slander” is reference to recent reports in South Korean and Japanese newspapers which stated that North Korea had requested aid from the US.

Despite these mixed messages, North Korea has acknowledged that the food crisis is a “burning issue.” The United Nations (UN) World Food Program conducted an extensive survey in 2011 in North Korea that revealed that one-fourth of the country’s twenty-four million people are in need of food assistance. North Korea has gone through decades of economic mismanagement and it has very little arable land to support the nutritional needs of its people.

Given the lack of transparency in North Korea’s government, it is difficult to know what this all means for North Korea’s future. Some analysts speculate that the North Korea’s new leader, Kim Jong-un, has stepped back from his father’s deal for strategic reasons. If there are any threats to his leadership, he must gain the support of North Korea’s powerful military leaders who are resistant to limiting, much less ending, its nuclear program.

It is unclear whether North Korea’s retreat from the proposed December deal signals the continuation of a prolonged relationship of disagreement and distrust with the United States, or rather was a political maneuver meant to ensure Jong-un does not lose the support of North Korea’s military. However, if the move reflects North Korea’s long-term policy toward the United States, it is likely that North Korea will remain underdeveloped and impoverished.

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