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US Diplomat Worries: NKorea Virus, Food07/23 06:18

   

   SEOUL, South Korea (AP) -- America's No. 2 diplomat on Friday expressed 
sympathy for North Koreans facing hardships and food shortages linked to the 
pandemic, and renewed calls for the North to return to talks over its nuclear 
program.

   North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has recently warned of a "tense" food 
situation and admitted his country faces "the worst-ever" crisis. But his 
government has steadfastly insisted it won't rejoin the talks unless Washington 
drops its hostility.

   "We all feel for the people of the DPRK, who are indeed facing all the most 
difficult circumstances given the pandemic, and what it means as well for their 
food security," U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman told reporters in 
Seoul, referring to North Korea's official name, the Democratic People's 
Republic of Korea.

   "We only hope for a better outcome for the people of the DPRK," she said.

   Sherman spoke after meeting South Korean officials, during which the two 
sides reaffirmed that they'll continue diplomatic efforts to convince North 
Korea to return to the nuclear talks.

   "We are looking forward to a reliable, predictable, constructive way forward 
with the DPRK," Sherman said. "We have offered to sit and dialogue with the 
North Koreans, and we are waiting to hear from them."

   Speaking beside Sherman, South Korea's first vice foreign minister, Choi 
Jong Kun, said, "We'll wait for a North Korean response with patience as now is 
the coronavirus period."

   The talks between Washington and Pyongyang have made little headway since 
early 2019, when a second summit between Kim and then-President Donald Trump 
collapsed due to wrangling over U.S.-led economic sanctions. Kim has since 
threatened to bolster his nuclear arsenal and build more sophisticated weapons 
unless the Americans lift their hostile policy, an apparent reference to the 
sanctions.

   Some experts say North Korea may be compelled to reach out to the United 
States if its economic difficulties worsen. Outside monitoring groups haven't 
reported any signs of mass starvation or social chaos in North Korea. In recent 
speeches, Kim has called for his 26 million people to brace for prolonged 
COVID-19 restrictions, indicating the country wasn't ready to reopen its 
borders despite the massive toll on its economy.

   South Korea's spy agency told lawmakers this month that North Korea hasn't 
received any foreign coronavirus vaccine. COVAX, the U.N.-backed program to 
ship COVID-19 vaccines worldwide, said in February that North Korea could 
receive 1.9 million doses in the first half of the year. But UNICEF, which 
procures and delivers vaccines on behalf of COVAX, said recently that North 
Korea hasn't even completed the paperwork for receiving the vaccines and that 
it was unclear when they could be delivered.

   After Seoul, Sherman is to travel on to Mongolia and then China, the North's 
last major ally and aid benefactor. She'll be the highest-ranking U.S. official 
to visit China since President Joe Biden was inaugurated in January.

   During her visit to the northeastern Chinese city of Tianjin on Sunday, 
Sherman said she'll discuss North Korea with Chinese officials, saying Beijing 
"certainly has interests and thought" on it.

   "The Biden administration has described our relationships with China as 
obviously a complicated one. It has aspects that are competitive, it has 
aspects where it is challenging, and aspects where we can cooperate," she said. 
"And thinking together about bringing the complete denuclearization of the 
Korean Peninsula is certainly an area for cooperation."

   Choi said China knows well it can play "a very important role" in efforts to 
bring back North Korea to dialogue. He said Sherman's China trip would be "very 
meaningful" and that Seoul and Washington have a shared responsibility for 
Beijing to play its role.

   Ahead of the meeting with Sherman, China has adopted a confrontational tone, 
reflecting the sharp deterioration in relations that began under Trump and 
continued under Biden.

   The U.S. is "defining China as a competitor, provoking confrontation, and 
containing and suppressing China's development," Chinese Foreign Ministry 
spokesperson Zhao Lijian said at a daily briefing. "The U.S. side has been 
calling for dialogue with China from a position of strength, which only 
reflects its arrogance and hegemony."

 
 
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