North Korea facing a new crisis?By Asia Sentinel May 02, 2011 7:40PM UTC
Starvation in the North may impel change, writes Asia Sentinel’s Lee Byong-Chul
The revelation last week by former US President Jimmy Carter that Kim Jong Il wants direct talks with South Korea’s President, Lee Myung-bak, has stirred intense speculation about what the reclusive North Korean leader is up to now, and raised questions about how fragile Kim’s government might actually be.
Carter told the Associated Press that although they are not prepared to apologize publicly North Korean leaders had privately told him they took responsibility and expressed deep regret for the sinking of the South Korean Navy gunboat Cheonan last April and an artillery attack on South Korea’s Yeonpyeong in November that killed two. Nonetheless, it may be an indication of the desperation that the North faces although in the past such offers to negotiate end up being clothed in unacceptable conditions to the West and South Korean officials.
Since the Yeonpyeong shelling, the north has gone noticeably quiet, amid some conjecture that their Chinese masters told them to back off. But according to South Korean charities, the North, perennially facing food shortages, in the wake of a harsh winter may be facing the worst famine since the mid-1990s when it is thought that as many as 2 million people starved to death. Once again, people are reported to be foraging for rats and snakes, grass and weeds and tree bark in an effort to stave off starvation.
Carter was accompanied by three other retired politicians, Martti Ahtisaari of Finland, Mary Robinson of Ireland, and Gro Brundtland of Norway. Robinson told reporters after the trip that the North faces a desperate crisis. There are underground ripples, in addition to the Carter visit, that indicate there may be movement behind the scenes. The Chinese, without being specific, have called for reconciliation on the peninsula after a North Korean diplomat visited Beijing.
The country’s inefficient command economy and lack of investment in agriculture have led to two decades of poor harvests and rendered the north one of the poorest countries on the planet. Now conditions appear to be worsening noticeably. Although word of the Jasmine Revolution in the Middle East appears to have permeated at least some of the society through the handful that have cell phones, the reports are that the people are so apathetic from starvation that thoughts of food have crowded out any thoughts of rebellion against one of the world’s most repressive regimes.
In the South, the view of what is going on north of the 38th Parallel has metamorphosed since the days of the Sunshine Engagement policy enunciated by former President Kim Dae-jung. In particular, there is a widespread perception in the South Kim Jong-il has damaged his cause with South Korea by his embrace of the campaign to become a nuclear state, perhaps irreparably. The government of Lee Myung-bak has adopted a hard line toward the North.