August 12, 2009 08:05
Speculation is running high about the reason North Korea suddenly decided to discuss the release of a South Korean detained there incommunicado for 135 days with his employer, Hyundai Group chairwoman Hyun Jung-eun, coming as it does hard on the heels of former U.S. president Bill Clinton's visit to the North.
Sources familiar with North Korean affairs and defectors from the Stalinist country say the developments owe much to Pyongyang's staunch ally China, which is implementing unprecedentedly tough sanctions against the North.
Beijing has recently begun monitoring and regulating exports to the North, especially along the border. One businessman involved in trade between China and North Korea said, "Chinese authorities have banned shipments of all metals and chemicals to North Korea that could be diverted for military use including missiles and nuclear weapons production, and issued a stern warning saying they will severely punish Chinese companies that violate those restrictions." He added he had "never seen" China pressure North Korea to this degree.
At the end of last month, Chinese customs foiled an attempt to smuggle the rare metal vanadium, which can be used in missile casings, into North Korea through the border town of Dandong. China accounts for 70 percent of North Korea's overseas trade.
The most painful of China's moves is the regulation of food shipments, sources say. Citing shortages at home, China apparently began shutting off food exports to North Korea last month and allows only shipments of food for personal use which cannot exceed 25 kg.
Chinese villages in the Yianji region along the border with North Korea have been informed by the provincial government that they should help North Koreans escaping food shortages and that the Chinese government will cover the expenses, according to accounts by ethnic Koreans in China. They say a crackdown on North Korean refugees, which reached fever pitch with the Beijing Olympics last year, has almost stopped, and police are not arresting North Koreans unless they are involved in major crimes.
North Korea is experiencing a serious food shortage. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization in a report in July warned that more than 6 million North Koreans will face difficulties in obtaining food until the next harvest due to a shortage of output compounded by a drop in overseas aid. China's virtual halt of food shipments is dealing another blow.
One recent North Korean defector who worked as a civil servant in Pyongyang said, "Food rations in Pyongyang have been halted for months, raising fears among residents that they may face the same fate as their starving countrymen in the countryside."
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