North Korea makes direct food aid appeal

North Korea makes direct appeal for food aid, highlighting worsening food security situation. Tensions ease on Thai-Cambodian border as refugees return hom. India-Pakistani peace talks to resume, say sources. All this and more in today’s briefing…
Josephine Whitaker
10 February 2011

The government of North Korea has ordered its embassies to appeal directly to foreign governments for food aid, including asking the United States to ‘restore’ food aid after a two-year suspension, signalling growing desperation about the food crisis in this isolated country.

In a move that is unusual for a highly reclusive government, Pyongyang is believed to have given each embassy a quota of food aid to secure beginning last December.

According to a South Korean newspaper, Pyongyang’s deputy ambassador to the United Nations requested the US to restore food aid during a meeting with the US special envoy on human rights in North Korea in late January. The US suspended food aid to North Korea in March 2009, after the North refused to allow more monitoring of aid efforts on the ground.

North Korea usually shies away from direct approaches to foreign governments, preferring instead to negotiate food aid through the World Food Programme (WFP) and other agencies. However, the WFP reported that it raised only one fifth of the funding needed for its North Korean food programme last year.

Meanwhile, aid agencies are expecting 2011 to be a particularly food insecure year around the world after a series of droughts and natural disasters produced poor harvests in 2010 that have pushed prices towards record highs. The situation in North Korea is expected to be particularly dire, after a severe winter and poor harvest. The WFP and Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has just begun a food needs assessment in North Korea, and while experts are not expecting the survey to point to an impending humanitarian crisis, analysts say it is too early to tell what the situation is.

India-Pakistani peace talks to resume

India and Pakistan are due to resume peace talks for the first time since terrorist attacks in Mumbai in 2008 prompted India to pull out of talks, according to official sources.

A senior Indian diplomat told journalists that the two sides had agreed to restart peace talks during a regional conference in Thimphu, Bhutan last week. This was the first high-level meeting between the two powers since July 2010. Pakistani officials have yet to confirm that talks will resume, although a senior officials in Islamabad said that “there has been progress towards [the resumption of formal dialogue], but I can’t say for now when it will happen.”

Strained relations between these nuclear neighbours has caused much consternation internationally, especially for the United States’ efforts in Afghanistan.

A return to talks marks a positive shift in this crucial relationship. Since the 2008 attacks, carried out by Pakistani militants, both sides have stopped short of returning to the composite dialogue – high levels talks aimed at resolving key disputes between the two powers, including the situation in Kashmir.

However, optimism remains muted amongst analysts. While India has long demanded that Pakistan take tougher measures against terrorists operating within its borders, the governemt in Islamabad has repeatedly asked New Delhi to provide evidence for its accusations.

Tensions ease on Thai-Cambodian border

Thai refugees have begun to return to their homes after four days of intense clashes between Thai and Cambodian forces along their shared border, in the first sign of easing tensions in this volatile dispute. According to the governor of Thailand’s Si Sa Ket province, Somsak Suvarnsujarit, several thousand villages had returned to their homes over the last day.

However, the situation remains unstable. “Those in villages right next to the scene of the fighting were asked to stay back until it is really safe. For now, the situation remains uncertain,” said Somsak.

Fighting between the neighbours, which the Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen has described as “war,” erupted after a dispute over an ancient temple on the border. Clashes involving militaries on both sides have left at least three dead and almost ninety wounded, according to local estimates. Although both sides have promised to exercise restraint, witnesses on the Thai side report seeing troops on the move.

The Preah Vihear temple has been a source of tension between Thailand and Cambodia for over fifty years, but the dispute has intensified in recent years with the growth of the nationalist ‘yellow shirt’ movement in Thailand.

Representatives from both sides will present their case at the United Nations’ headquarters in New York next week.  However, officials on both sides have also ruled out direct diplomacy.

Analysts have been perplexed by the violence of fighting over the last few days, with some suggesting that hawkish generals on the Thai side are attempting to provoke a crisis to destabilise the government of Abhisit Vejjajiva.

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