By Doug Struck
Washington Post Foreign Service
Washington Post, Washington, D.C.
Sunday, January 19, 2003; Page A18
TOKYO -- The United States delivered its last shipment of grain to North
Korea on Dec. 10 and has imposed strict conditions for resuming food aid,
leading analysts to conclude that Washington is using hunger as a weapon in
its confrontation with North Korea over nuclear weapons.
Administration officials deny that they have ended food aid over the nuclear
issue, saying the United States is simply demanding the same accountability
for its aid that it uses elsewhere in the world. They say there has been no
change in long-standing policy not to use humanitarian aid for political
purposes. The United States has contributed more than half the grain to an
international effort that helped lift North Korea from famine and last year
fed more than 6 million of the country's 22 million people.
But many analysts in Asia see that as political cover and note that the food
aid has stopped flowing just as the United States seeks to pressure North
Korea to end its nuclear weapons program.
The conclusion was bolstered by President Bush's statement Tuesday that he
would consider offering "an initiative which would talk about energy and
food" if North Korea ends its nuclear aspirations.
Bush's aides later clarified his remarks, saying he was talking about a
program to help boost North Korea's agriculture, not direct food aid. But
that interpretation was unlikely to have convinced North Korea, which has
seen the grain ships stop coming just as it girds for a severe winter, and
which views the Bush administration as intent on toppling the government.
The U.N. secretary general, Kofi Annan, was alarmed enough to immediately
dispatch a special envoy to Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, last week
to assess the humanitarian situation. The envoy, Maurice Strong, warned
Tuesday in Beijing of a "significant crisis in March or April" because "the
pipeline is drying up."
"I think the Bush administration has decided that they have to push North
Korea to the corner to trigger change and concessions," said Toshimitsu
Shigemura, a North Korea expert at Takushoku University in Tokyo.
"The United States has been the only country, other than South Korea, that
has been consistently giving food aid to the north in hundreds of thousands
of tons. The impact on North Korea [of a U.S. aid cutoff] would be
enormous," he said. "The U.S. can put conditions on resuming the food aid,
and use it as a card for bargaining."
Andrew S. Natsios, head of the U.S. Agency for International Development,
has said the food is being halted to force North Korea to drop its
restrictions on international monitors who try to ensure the food is
distributed to hungry civilians, not the military.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher has said the aid will resume when
a budget for the assistance is approved. But Natsios has promised Congress
that North Korea would be required to permit more food monitors, give them
more freedom, and allow them in parts of the country that North Korea has
declared off-limits, all unpalatable requirements for Pyongyang.
Natsios contends that North Korea, having emerged from the famines of the
mid-1990s and with improved harvests, is not in such dire need. But
officials of the U.N. agency in charge of the food distribution say the
absence of U.S. contributions will have a severe effect on a population that
already subsists on gruel and often must resort to eating leaves and roots.
"There's just not enough food to go around in this country," Richard
Corsino, head of the World Food Program in Pyongyang, said by telephone
Friday. "Even though they had a fairly good crop this year, they are still
over a million tons short."
The United States provided more than 250,000 tons of the 400,000 tons of
food distributed last year in North Korea, Corsino said. So far this year,
only the European Union and Italy have pledged contributions of about 65,000
tons, according to Gerald Bourke, a WFP spokesman in Beijing. Without more
assistance, "we would be looking at a major food crisis. There are so many
people living on the edge," Bourke said.
North Korea's famine in the mid-1990s brought a death toll that by some
estimates reached 2 million. A huge international aid program began then,
led by the U.S. donations to WFP and bolstered by assistance from South
Korea, Japan, China and the European Union.
Some analysts say the hardships in North Korea have made the government
desperate for assistance and vulnerable to new pressure from the cessation
of food aid. Others point to the government's stubborn refusal in the 1990s
to aggressively seek outside help that would belie its state policy of
juche, or self-reliance. They say North Korean leader Kim Jong Il would
allow more people to starve rather than submit to U.S. pressure.
"If food aid from the U.S. stops, at least 300,000 to 400,000 North Koreans
will die of hunger. This winter is critical to them," said Chang Seong
Chong, a North Korean analyst at the Sejong Research Institute in Seoul.
"From the North Korean point of view, they often say, 'We'd rather die
standing up straight, than live kneeling down,' " Chang said. "If food aid
is used as a weapon or stick to tame them, no matter whether hundreds of
thousands or millions die of hunger, they will react with that attitude."
But Chang added, "I don't think neighboring countries will allow that."
China, which has food surpluses, or South Korea, which has just reaffirmed
the government's platform of advocating good relations with the North, might
try to fill the void left by the missing U.S. food.
Without it, "there would be major instability in the Korean Peninsula,"
which North Korea's neighbors do not want, said Suh Jae Jean, of the Korean
Institute for National Unification. "I don't think the U.S. will make such a
decision. I strongly believe that North Korea's survival is also in the
interest of the U.S." Some Bush advisors have urged the administration to
seek a change of government in North Korea, as it is doing in Iraq, although
with economic pressure, not military.
South Korea's Ministry of Unification said in a study released in Seoul on
Friday that the cutback in international aid is likely to hurt North Korea's
economy and reverse its positive expansion after two years of good harvests
and last year's economic reform.
But economic collapse could bring a chaotic situation that could spill over
into other countries. "The difference this time is that people won't remain
silent," said Lee Young Hwa, an assistant professor studying the North
Korean economy at Kansai University in Osaka, Japan. "The young, healthy men
will riot. The elderly, the pregnant women and children will flee." Kim
"doesn't care if his people are starved to death, but he doesn't like his
people fleeing," he said.
Diplomats and officials last week played down talk of such extreme
situations. South Korean president-elect Roh Moo Hyun told a group of
businessmen in Seoul on Friday that "there was no need to worry" much about
the nuclear crisis, softening the shrill edge of remarks the previous day by
South Korean Defense Minister Lee Jun, who said the country was prepared for
the "worst-case scenario."
Roh repeated his view that "there needs to be dialogue between North Korea
and the United States," a view U.S. officials seem reluctantly to be moving
toward. Although U.S. officials have said Bush's offer to talk is not an
offer of negotiations, and although North Korea's propaganda outlet has
derided the offer, officials in the region say they believe a diplomatic
solution is achievable.
Special correspondents Joohee Cho in Seoul and Sachiko Sakamaki in Tokyo
contributed to this report.
The Washington Post, Washington, D.C.
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