Deputy Director of the Peterson
Institute for Int’l Economics
The United States appears to be preparing a ``food-for-talks'' exchange with North Korea if the communist country decides to return to the six-party talks on its denuclearization, a U.S. think tank expert said Tuesday.
Under the scenario, the impoverished North would receive renewed food aid in return for rejoining the stalled talks, Marcus Noland, deputy director of the Peterson Institute for International Economics, said.
Noland recently co-authored a study for the East-West Center surveying North Korean refugees that reveals rising discontent within the country.
His observation comes as North Korean leader Kim Jong-il is widely speculated to pay a visit to China in the near future for talks with President Hu Jintao.
``My expectation is that China will extract from North Korea a commitment to rejoin the six-party talks and in return will provide them with economic assistance,'' Noland told The Korea Times in an e-mail interview.
``It also appears that the U.S. government is gearing up for a similar 'food for talks' swap ― North Korea rejoining the six-party talks and the U.S. providing renewed food aid.''
Reports on Kim's possible trip surfaced as North Koreans are reportedly struggling with the effects of the regime's currency revaluation and a worsening food situation.
Late last November, the North Korean government introduced a currency revaluation in an effort to control the bourgeoning market economy there. The move was disastrous ― wiping out savings, causing severe inflation and reportedly leading to rare civil discontent inside the country's opaque borders.
It also brought an unprecedented apology from the government, and, according to the Seoul-based Daily NK, the public execution of a senior finance official and one of his deputies.
Noland warned such deals to bring the North back to the table could have a negative effect in the long run and that rejoining the talks may simply be aimed at securing external support in order to control the shaky internal situation.
``Unfortunately, this kind of linkage is likely to degrade the humanitarian aid program as well as provide North Korea an opportunity to parlay self-created disputes in one arena into concessions in another, as well as undercutting (South Korea, which has) acted with admirable restraint,'' he said.
Cynicism on Kim Jong-il's Regime
The survey of refugees, meanwhile, suggests cynicism on Kim's regime is on the rise in North Korea and that many there believe Pyongyang is to blame for the country's problems, not foreign forces such as South Korea or the United States.
Most of those surveyed said that the economic conditions ― whether they got better or worse ― primarily depended on the actions of the North Korean government.
Eighty-two percent said they watched or listened to foreign news broadcasts while in the North. More than 95 percent thought most of the food aid received by the country went to the army or to government and party officials.
Some 30 percent reported losing a family member during the famine of the 1990s.
The North Korean economy began to ``marketize'' during the famine ― which peaked in 1997 and killed as many as one million people.
The currency reform, food shortage and public discontent comes as Kim appears to be making efforts to establish his 27-year-old Kim Jong-eun son as heir apparent, an issue that could be an agenda item on the leader's trip to China.
Last week, South Korea's presidential office said the visit appeared highly likely, confirming media reports.
Speculation has been rampant on when the trip will occur. Last weekend was conjectured as a possibility but the North's official media reported him to be in the country at the time. Reports surfaced Tuesday that the trip may be delayed until late April, citing Chinese President Hu's scheduled visit to Washington., D.C. to attend the Nuclear Security Summit hosted by U.S. President Barack Obama.