fight looms over North Korean
'famine' By Donald Kirk
SEOUL - The United States and South Korea
are on a collision course over a pivotal issue: to
feed starving North Koreans or not to feed them.
The US envoy on North Korea, Stephen
Bosworth, was in Seoul this week, carefully
avoiding any commitment on the issue. He said in
response to a question from this correspondent
after meeting with South Korea's nuclear envoy, Wi
Sun Lac, "We have a very strong common view of how
to proceed on food."
Oh yes, he also said,
at the same door-stepping interlude at the Foreign
Ministry where he was besieged by a horde of writing
journalists and cameramen, as
far as the North Korean nuclear program goes, "the
reality of coordination between the United States
and South Korea is very very good".
reality, however, is that the US is on the verge
of deciding to send another US envoy, Robert King,
on what's being called a "fact-finding mission" to
determine how badly North Korea needs food.
King, the special envoy on human rights in
North Korea, is not likely to pick up any "facts"
the North Koreans don't want him to have, but the
mission will likely be a breakthrough. It would,
after all, open a dialogue between the US and
North Korea that the North has wanted ever since
Barack Obama's inauguration as president in
Bosworth during his visit
here is believed to have tried to talk South
Korea's conservative leadership, notably
Unification Minister Hyun In-taek, into
understanding if not acquiescing to the mission.
He may even have told him that it will happen -
regardless of his stance.
That's not good
news for South Korea's President Lee Myung-bak. He
has staked much of his prestige on a relatively
hardline stance that's reversed the "Sunshine"
policy of reconciliation pursued for the previous
decade by his two presidential predecessors, Kim
Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun.
Lee] can't be happy if the US does this," said
Victor Cha, who served as Asia director on the
national security council during the presidency of
George W Bush.
The whole thrust of Lee's
policy, as enunciated to recent visitors, is that
it is of paramount importance to hang tough in the
face of North Korean pleas and pressure. Lee's
view, as relayed by those who've seen him lately,
is that North Korea is making a global bid for
more food in order to stock up for grandiose
celebrations next winter and spring of the 100th
anniversary on April 15 of the birth of the late
Great Leader Kim Il-sung, whose son, Kim Jong-il,
took over after his death in July 1994.
Lee's position is that North Korea not
only has to apologize for two dastardly acts
committed last year in the Yellow Sea that took 50
lives - the sinking of the navy corvette the
Cheonan in March in which 46 sailors were
killed and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in
November that killed two marines and two
civilians. It was more than a year before the
Cheonan episode, however, that Lee cut off
aid to North Korea, demanding the North live up to
earlier agreements reached in six-party talks
hosted by China to give up its nuclear weapons
Now debate rages on whether the
US should resume the Bush administration policy of
giving food to North Korea, as did South Korea
during the decade of "Sunshine". Cha, a professor
at Georgetown University and Korea chair of the
Center for Strategic and International Studies, is
not against sending food to North Korea if the US
can extract an agreement "that would be as good as
if not better" than the agreement reached in the
last year of the Bush administration for "access
That's a qualification
that many observers see as a deal-breaker given
the tight controls imposed by the North Koreans,
but Cha thinks the Bush agreement had "to-date the
best terms". These were, "access to all provinces
but two, [the] right to do nutritional surveys,
permission for a portion of the monitoring team to
be Korean language speakers and one official
on-the-ground," presumably from the State
Department, "to monitor operations".
the US can get all that, in Cha's view, "I think
the administration would have a defensible
position to give food."
The whole issue,
however, is complicated by revelations in a leaked
United Nations report that North Korea has been
shipping missiles, and the technology to build
them, to Iran via China, all in violation of
sanctions imposed after the North's second nuclear
test in May 2009 and the test-firing of a
long-range missile in April 2009. Those
accusations, hotly denied by China and Iran, are
certain to dominate attempts to bring about
resumption of six-party talks on the North's nuke
program as well as food aid.
whole question of whether to answer calls for help
for people who are near starving after a harsh
winter in which the crops were smaller than usual
is a tough one. In a small gesture, South Korea's
National Council of Churches this week shipped 172
tons of flour across the Yalu River border from
the Chinese city of Dandong to Sinuiju on the
North Korean side.
That aid won't go far
toward relieving the agony of a country of more
than 24 million people whose minimal need is
estimated at 450,000 tons right now. Without the
food, some analysts wonder if the North faces a
famine similar to that in the mid-1990s in which
as many as two million people are estimated to
have died of starvation or disease.
Peters, whose Helping Hands Korea assists North
Korean refugees in escaping from China to South
Korea, advocates more food aid via
non-governmental organizations (NGOs) but strongly
opposes government aid in view of the North's
"I do think we should
give it," he said, "but I'm very strongly against
state-to-state transfers". He believes small NGOs
"have their own pipelines". That doesn't mean
they're not monitored, as is everyone who goes to
North Korea, but essentially "they're off the
radar of the big boys in Pyongyang".
for massive state aid, however, Peters warned that
"operating inside North Korea is a slippery slope"
in which "you're used to using the regime".
Foreigners, he said, "are so starry-eyed they
don't realize they're being taken to the cleaners"
adding, however, that a few NGOs over the years
have "found ways to sidestep the main
The controversy over plying
North Korea with aid has devolved into a struggle
between conservatives and liberals, many of whom
were previously identified with the Sunshine
One proponent of aid, Moon
Jung-in, a political science professor at Yonsei
University, once close to Kim Dae-jugn, said aid
to the North was "long overdue".
qualified that view by citing the need for
"transparency" but believes the US State
Department "should have a good idea" of where the
aid is going - whether to those who need it most
or to members of the armed forces, the government
and the Workers' Party.
"They [the US]
talk about human rights," he said. "Food is a very
important part of human rights." King, if he goes
to Pyongyang, "should use food aid as leverage".
Peter Beck, a scholar who has spent a
number of years in South Korea, noted that sacks
of rice with the symbol of clasped-hands over the
American flag, would "generate good-will". At the
same time, he said, "effective monitoring means,
no visits, no food".
As for the debate in
South Korea over food aid, he said, "North Korea
has not apologized" for the Cheonan or
Yeonpyeong Island episodes - It denies anything to
do with the former and accuses South Korean
gunners of firing first in the Yeonpyeong clash.
"It's understandable there is reluctance,"
said Beck. "It's hard to feed someone who's
literally biting the hands that feed you."