By:Â Michele Wolfson
The United States has announced a significant donation of food aid to North Korea this week, the first vocalized accomplishment after months of behind-the-scenes diplomatic relations between the two wartime enemies. An agreement by North Korea to suspend its controversial uranium enrichment program will likely follow within days. The death of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il delayed this expected announcement about the resumption of food aid from the United States to North Korea.
Deliberations have been taking place since summer in New York, Geneva and Beijing. These discussions generated agreements by North Korea to suspend nuclear and ballistic missile testing, readmit international nuclear inspectors expelled in 2009, and resume a dialogue between North Korea and South Korea, according to the people, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of sensitivity of the negotiations.
The announcement of the food aid, expected to take place as early as last Monday in Washington, not only would be welcome news for North Korea, but also pave the way for another crucial U.S.-North Korea meeting in Beijing on Thursday. That meeting in turn could lead within weeks to the resumption of nuclear disarmament talks that would also include China, Japan, Russia and South Korea.
The concern is that while there are reports that millions of people in North Korea are starving, we all don't know what happens to these negotiations following Kim Jong Il's death. The death of Kim Jong Il leaves his youngest son of the Kim Jong Un in charge of running the family business.
Kim Jong Un is eager to secure his position of power. Reports suggest he already was shuffling the upper ranks of the military with younger officers, who now owe their allegiance to him. The worry is the transition of power to an unknown 20-something will inspire irrational acts by the North Korean military, so the new leader appears tough.
"We are concerned. Time is of the essence," said Ken Isaacs of Samaritan's Purse, one of five U.S.-based charities that helped distribute the last American food aid in North Korea, nearly three years ago. "Whatever was agreed may have to go back to the drawing board in different capitals. Who knows how all that will pan out."
David Austin, North Korea program director for Mercy Corps, said during their last trip to flood-hit regions of the country in September they saw children starving. "The longer you delay this decision, the more suffering there's going to be," he said, noting that it would take between six weeks and three months to set up new food deliveries.
Despite a U.N. assessment in March that 6 million out of 24 million of its people needed emergency food aid, international donors have been reluctant to help, wary of assisting an oppressive regime that has developed nuclear weapons but failed to modernize farming. A U.N. program of food distributions this year has only been 30 percent funded.
The United States is demanding that the distribution of aid comes with rigorous safety measures, such as the presence of more Korean-speaking monitors to prevent food being drawn off by the North Korean military and officials.
It has been reported that much of the North Korean population suffered "prolonged food deprivation" in 2011 as the public distribution system that most rely on was reduced to 7 ounces or less a day, providing only one-third the minimum daily energy requirement.
Mercy Corp's David Austin says not only is resuming food aid to North Korea as soon as possible the right thing to do, it's politically smart. The hope is that after the death of Kim Jong Il, the western world will take this as a great opportunity to put their best foot forward into a new era.
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