Questions for N. Koreans
The question of how much to aid North Korea’s impoverished people again is a top topic for diplomats, analysts, politicians and bureaucrats.
Nobody wants to see starving kids suffering on video shot by the World Food Program. Nobody likes the images of ghostly women living on weeds by the roadside until collapsing almost before our eyes. Yet nobody knows how to be at all certain that a significant portion of the aid shipped into North Korea will go to the people who need it most, and nobody wants to have to admit, in return for all that aid, the North’s ruling dynasty is conceding nothing, absolutely nothing.
Those are the doubts that have come to the fore in talks in Beijing between nuclear envoys from the two Koreas, in a visit here by the American envoy on North Korean human rights and maybe in President Lee Myung-bak’s trip to New York to address the U.N. General Assembly.
The sense is the United States and South Korea may be moving closer to resuming aid to the North, halted except for occasional ``humanitarian” assistance, after Lee’s inauguration in February 2008, but that no one is happy or sure about it.
It’s possible, when and if six-party talks resume, that aid will enter discussion, on the sidelines if not in formal sessions. No one, however, is stupid enough to expect North Korea to give up its nukes, the ostensible reason for the talks. The assumption is North Korea sees talks as a chance to con everyone into pouring in thousands and thousands of tons of aid to help celebrate Kim Jong-il’s 70th birthday in February and the 100th anniversary of the birth of his father, ``Great Leader” Kim Il-sung, in April.
Theoretically, such talks should provide a forum for negotiators to press the North Koreans on issues the North would rather not talk about. As long as all six parties are at the table, why should the South Koreans hesitate to ask about more than 500 South Korean abductees, most of them fishermen whose boats strayed into North Korean waters?
And why not also ask about the sinking of the Cheonan and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island last year. Of course, the response would be shrill claims and denials that we’ve all heard before. Still, as long as North Korean diplomats go begging for aid, they might think twice before walking out in a huff.
Nor are the South Koreans the only ones who might ask questions the North Koreans don’t wish to answer. Don’t the Japanese have every right to ask about dozens of their citizens whom Japan believes have been held in the North ever since they were kidnapped off Japanese beaches more than 30 years ago?
For that matter, on a much larger scale, shouldn’t negotiators ask the North Korean side about horrific human rights abuses that go on to this day? We’ve all heard the argument that we should reconcile with North Korea before trying to bring about an end to such abuses. That argument offers scant comfort to those caught up as victims ― and has not had the slightest impact on inter-Korean reconciliation.
There are so many other questions negotiators might ask. North Korea’s export of drugs and weapons, of counterfeit funds and cigarettes with foreign labels, the takeover of the Mt. Geumgang tourist complex, the reluctance to stage more than a handful of family reunions ― all these and more come to mind. It’s disheartening to realize, though, that negotiators at six-party talks will be extremely reluctant to raise any such issues. They will be too afraid the North Koreans will stage a walkout and go home.
Actually, however, negotiators could get a lot tougher. Nick Eberstadt, a prolific writer and scholar on North Korea at the American Enterprise Institute, has called for ``intrusive aid” under which aid-givers should ask to go just about everywhere and talk to anyone. He even includes the prisons where political prisoners remain until death, from starvation, disease, overwork or torture, beatings and execution. Others, such as the American missionary Tim Peters, believe aid should be dispensed through dozens of small non-governmental organizations with special regions and interests – and the ability to track where it goes.
It’s safe to assume, obviously, that North Korea would view any such proposals, in diplomatic talks, as blasphemous. We also assume the United States and South Korea are not going to consider roiling the atmosphere of reconciliation in a year in which both Americans and Koreans vote for new presidents. Still, the talks do offer possibilities. No harm in fantasizing what might be if only the negotiators on our side had the same nerve as those across the table.
Columnist Donald Kirk is the author of ``Korea Betrayed: Kim Dae Jung and Sunshine.” His website is www.donaldkirk.com, and he’s reachable at email@example.com