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     May 21, 2011

Food 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".

The 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 January 2009.

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.

"MB [President 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 program.

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 and monitoring".

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".

If 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.

Still, the 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.

Tim 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 current policies.

"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".

As 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 bureaucrats".

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 policy.

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".

He 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."

Donald Kirk, a long-time journalist in Asia, is author of the newly published Korea Betrayed: Kim Dae Jung and Sunshine.

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