US rights envoy Robert King headed to North Korea yesterday, the first official US visit to Pyongyang in 17 months as Washington considers whether to resume food aid and as momentum builds to resume nuclear disarmament talks.
The envoy is leading a team of five people on the week-long trip to evaluate the isolated North’s pleas for food, which have been questioned by South Korea and some high profile US senators.
The US is under pressure to resume food aid after a UN report said earlier this year that more than 6 million North Koreans urgently need help.
Washington has stressed that King’s trip does not mean a resumption of aid was imminent.
“However, since North Korea sees US decisions on humanitarian aid through a political lens, the food aid assessment might be treated in Pyongyang as a political signal that the [US President Barack] Obama administration might finally be open to a broader political dialogue with North Korea,” wrote North Korea expert Scott Snyder on the Council of Foreign Relations Web site.
King’s visit, the first by a US special envoy for North Korean human rights since the job’s inception in 2004, comes as North Korean leader Kim Jong-il tours ally China on a trip to “study” its economic model.
Diplomats and analysts say the North, squeezed by international sanctions for nuclear and missile tests in 2009, will probably also ask for more food and economic aid from its main benefactor.
In return, experts expect Beijing to press the North to join the South in bilateral talks as a prelude to regional denuclearization talks, stalled for more than two years after Pyongyang walked out over a new round of UN sanctions.
Beijing says the so-called six-party talks between the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the US offer the best diplomatic forum to resolve all issues on the peninsula, not just denuclearization.
Tensions spiked last year after two deadly attacks killed 50 South Koreans.
Last month, after a trip to the North, former US president Jimmy Carter accused Seoul and Washington of human rights abuses for denying the North aid.
Washington suspended food supplies to the North in 2008 over a monitoring dispute and has said it will only resume them with Seoul’s agreement.
Critics of aid say the North has siphoned off the food in the past to feed its 1 million-strong army, and South Korea says the North’s food stocks are at the same levels as last year.
Officials in Seoul also suspect North Korea wants to hoard food ahead of a third nuclear test, which would likely provoke a further tightening of international sanctions.
King is also expected to raise broader human rights issues with North Korean officials, as well as the case of a US citizen detained in North Korea since last November on charges of doing missionary work.