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NORTH KOREA NEWSLETTER NO. 151 (March 31, 2011)

All Headlines 10:53 March 31, 2011

*** TOPIC OF THE WEEK (Part 1)

North Korea Stepping Up Civilian Diplomacy with U.S.

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- A lighter mood appears to be developing on the Korean Peninsula as North Korea has been stepping up its diplomatic efforts on a civilian level in an apparent bid to appease the United States.

A North Korean economic delegation is currently on a U.S. tour at the invitation of the University of California-San Diego, and is now staying in New York until this weekend.

A socialist country, the impoverished North has long regarded the capitalist U.S. as a Cold War enemy, but experts say the North appears to be learning more about capitalism and the market economy of the U.S., the world's largest economic power.

Last February, a North Korean delegation comprised mostly of scientists traveled to the U.S. to attend academic seminars and to discuss the exchange of science and technology between the two countries. The North's scientists delegation was headed by Hong So-hon, president of Kimchaek University of Technology.

This time, the economic envoys from North Korea traveled to the U.S. on a private visit, attracting attention that their visit comes amid signs of a thawing in North Korea's relations with South Korea and the U.S.

Ri Gun, director general of the North American affairs bureau of North Korea's foreign ministry, flew to Berlin last weekend to attend a seminar hosted by the Aspen Institute, a U.S. think tank, to exchange opinions with some former U.S. officials on reopening the six-party talks.

Among the U.S. participants are Richard Allen, first national security adviser under President Ronald Reagan, and Thomas Pickering, undersecretary of state for political affairs under the Clinton administration.

But the trip came amid the possibility of the U.S. resuming food aid to the impoverished nation in the near future and as former U.S. President Jimmy Carter is preparing to visit the socialist nation to broker rapprochement between the two Cold War foes.

The delegation of North Korean economic officials arrived in New York on March 27, saying that they want to explore the possibility of economic cooperation with the United States.

The 12-member delegation, comprising mid-level officials from the trade, agriculture and other ministries, flew from San Diego, where they had stayed after arriving in the U.S. on March 19 at the invitation of the Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation at the University of California, San Diego.

Susan Shirk, director of the institute, invited the envoys, all North Korean officials in charge of economic affairs. The IGCC is one of the U.S.'s influential, private diplomatic channels for dialogue with the communist country.

The North Korean delegation's trip to New York was organized by the Asia Society.

It is rare for North Korean officials to visit the U.S. The North and the U.S. fought against one another in the 1950-53 Korean War and have no diplomatic relations. The two sides have also been at odds over Pyongyang's nuclear programs and a series of provocations.

"We're an economic delegation. We're here to discuss and look for the possibility of economic cooperation between us and the United States," one member of the delegation said, without giving his name.

Washington has downplayed the significance of the North's delegation, stressing that their visit is a privately organized event in which the government has played no part.

"Our assessment is that they are not here for talks between the North and the U.S., considering the agencies they belong to and their ranks," a source in New York said. "It's difficult to fathom the real intentions of the North, but for the U.S., it might have seen no reason to reject the North's delegation coming to learn about the capitalist economy."

In New York, the North Korean officials attended an Asian Society seminar and visited media firms and Wall Street. The Asia Society has strictly barred reporters from access to the North Koreans, saying their trip is part of private-level exchanges.

Meanwhile, a group of North Korea experts in Washington and New York is scheduled to visit North Korea soon to discuss pending issues between the two countries on a civilian level, according to the Radio Free Asia recently.

Analysts in Seoul said that the exchange of visits between Washington and Pyongyang could be a signal that the North is finally getting serious about introducing more market-based economic reforms.

They explained the North's efforts to increase contacts with the U.S. will make it easier for North Korean leader Kim Jong-il to transfer his power to his youngest son Kim Jong-un.

But others said the North Korean envoys' mission is just a conciliatory gesture to try to woo food aid from the U.S. amid a deepening food crisis.

Meanwhile, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter will travel to North Korea late next month without carrying any official message from the U.S. government, the State Department said March 24.

"Former President Carter is traveling in a strictly private capacity," spokesman Mark Toner told a daily news briefing. "He is not traveling with an official U.S. delegation and he does not carry an official message. We have not had any contact with him other than being informed about the trip."

Toner did not elaborate on when the visit will take place, but informed sources said that Carter will tour the reclusive communist state late next month to broker a rapprochement in U.S. relations with the North, which have chilled over Pyongyang's nuclear and missile programs and other provocations.

Carter's trip is an effort to help mend ties between the sides just like he did in 1994, when he met with then-North Korean leader Kim Il-sung, current leader Kim Jong-il's father, and brokered a bilateral U.S.-North Korea deal during the first North Korean nuclear crisis in 1994, which led to the Geneva Agreed Framework later that year.

Carter's trip is the second of its kind since August, when he toured Pyongyang to bring back an American citizen caught for illegal entry. He was briefed by State Department officials before he traveled to Pyongyang, and debriefed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton about his trip there.

Carter was expected to play a role in mending U.S. relations with the North at the time, but he could not meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, who had traveled to China for a meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao. Kim made the trip in an apparent attempt to seek Chinese support for the unprecedented third-generation power transition to his youngest son.

For all the positive developments, Pyongyang badly needs food and other economic assistance as part of the denuclearization-for-aid package signed in 2005 among the two Koreas, the U.S., China, Japan and Russia.

U.S. officials have said they are assessing the food situation in the North, which is said to be suffering from severe food shortages due to a poor harvest last year.

In a recent report, a U.N. monitoring team, which concluded a fact-finding mission in North Korea early this month, called for the provision of 430,000 tons of food aid to North Korea to avoid "the risk of malnutrition and other diseases" for millions of children, women and the elderly in the North, stricken by floods and severe winter weather, according to the Associated Press.

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