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(News Focus) Worsening economic plight unlikely to lead N.K. back to talks: experts

All Headlines 09:00 June 05, 2019

By Choi Soo-hyang

SEOUL, June 5 (Yonhap) -- The recent outbreak of African swine fever in North Korea added yet another woe to the impoverished nation's struggling economy and food shortages, but Pyongyang is unlikely to come back to talks just to seek assistance, experts said.

Last week, Pyongyang reported to the World Organization for Animal Health the outbreak of swine fever at a farm in a region bordering China. The fatal disease to pigs, which has no known treatment, occurred at a time when the North is struggling to feed its people after its crop output fell to the lowest level since 2008.

That spurred speculation that a need to revive the economy and overcome food shortages might compel Pyongyang to think about coming back to the negotiating table. But experts say that returning to talks just for economic reasons would be one of the last things the North would do.

On Friday, South Korea proposed to the North through their joint liaison office that the two sides discuss ways to work together to prevent the spread of the contagious disease, but the North has yet to come up with a response.

Experts say whether the North agrees to the offer or not, it will be reluctant to be put in a position that makes it seem vulnerable to the sanctions in the face of a deadlock in its denuclearization negotiations with the United States.

"In common sense, it is natural that they come out to talk when the economic plight worsens, but North Korea is approaching the nuclear talks, and the inter-Korean relations, with their back to the wall," Hong Min, a research fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification, said.

"They will only move within the extent that shows that they are not restricted by the sanctions," he said.

Indeed, North Korea has been highlighting the spirit of "self-reliance" following its unsuccessful attempt to lift the sanctions during the Hanoi summit between leader Kim Jong-un and U.S. President Donald Trump in February.

The Trump-Kim meeting abruptly ended as the two sides failed to find common ground over the scope of Pyongyang's denuclearization measures and Washington's sanctions relief.

With the collapse of the talks, inter-Korean relations also hit a snag amid worries their joint projects could undermine international sanctions imposed on Pyongyang.

In a key policy speech in April, Kim said he now doubts the point of sticking to summits with the U.S. for the sake of easing sanctions.

"They have effectively declared that they will endure the sanctions. It's unlikely that they will directly demand support from the South even if they do accept the support coming through international organizations," Hong said.

This file photo, taken May 21, 2019, shows a plot of land in North Korea seen from the Dora Observatory in Paju, north of Seoul. (Yonhap)

Playing down South Korea's push to provide US$8 million to international organizations for aid projects in North Korea, the North has been urging Seoul to address "fundamental issues" related to the implementation of inter-Korean declarations instead of talking about the humanitarian projects.

Yet, experts warn that now is only the beginning of the food crisis North Korea would have to go through.

"There is an overflow of data that show North Korea's food situation is deteriorating," Kim Young-hoon, a research fellow at the Korea Rural Economic Institute, said in a recent seminar. "What sticks out this year is that the North Korean authorities have officially requested the U.N. for support."

The researcher said economic sanctions are preventing necessary resources, such as chemical fertilizers and vinyl for farm use, from being supplied to the agricultural sector, making it more vulnerable to natural disasters.

"The key to stabilizing the agricultural output is to overhaul basic facilities, such as irrigation systems. The renewal of such structures has been largely delayed or suspended due to the economic difficulties the North is going through," he said.

According to a report by the World Food Programme (WFP) and the Food and Agriculture Organization, North Korea's crop output last year hit the lowest level since 2008, with an estimated 10 million people, or about 40 percent of its population, in urgent need of food.

They also warned that an outbreak of a contagious disease, such as the African swine fever, could decimate "livestock populations and further endanger food security" in North Korea.

"The capacity to detect and control diseases is very weak due to a shortage of testing equipment and supplies," they said in the joint report released last month.

"The idea that the privileged are affected first from the restrictions on exports and trade is about the early stage of a sanctions regime. As time goes by, the upper class naturally shifts the burden to those in the lower strata," professor Yang Moon-soo at the University of North Korean Studies said.

The professor said the drop in North Korea's rice prices in the January-April period deserves attention as it could be a sign that North Koreans' rice purchasing power is decreasing, with their demand shifting to lower-level substitutes, such as flour and corn.

Adding to the woes, the North is experiencing a severe drought, with the country's precipitation in the first five months of the year plunging to the lowest level since 1917.

While stressing the need to support North Korea, experts say that humanitarian issues should be approached separately from the denuclearization negotiations.

"We can't rule out the possibility that humanitarian assistance will lead to exchanges in the political arena, but what's more important is that we build trust first," said professor Yang Moo-jin at the University of North Korean Studies.

"The bottom line is that humanitarian aid should be separated from politics."

A sanitation official disinfects a road near the Tongil Bridge in Paju, north of Seoul, on June 3, 2019, in an effort to prevent African swine fever from hitting the region following its outbreak in North Korea. (Yonhap)

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