NEW YORK TIMES
05/29 A Hungry North Korea Swallows a Bit of Pride
The New York Times [Late Edition - Final] Copyright c. 1997 New York Times Company Publication Date: May 29, 1997
Section A, Page 6, Column 3
By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
TOKYO, May 28 -- With a serious famine spreading in North Korea, one of the central obstacles to getting attention and assistance has been North Korean pride, which is as enormous as the country's need.
Vast numbers of North Korea's 23 million people may be starving, but the North Korean leadership has been reluctant to accept direct aid from South Korea or to allow journalists to visit hard-hit areas and publicize the suffering. The Government of Kim Jong Il, the longtime ''Dear Leader,'' now elevated to ''Great Leader,'' has feared that direct aid and wrenching news coverage of hungry children would be humiliating for the nation and would allow South Korea to score propaganda points.
But this week, in a sign that greater openness may be in the offing, the two Koreas reached a major agreement that will allow the South to send food aid directly to North Korea and to mark the sacks so that it is clear where the aid is coming from. The agreement also allows aid organizations to send food into the North by new routes and to stipulate what region in North Korea will get the food.
''I think this is a major breakthrough,'' said Lee Yoon Gu, the co-chairman of a South Korean coalition of organizations trying to send food to the North. ''Whether or not it will work out, we'll have to see. But I'm optimistic.''
Some others are more skeptical, and everyone agrees that a good deal will depend on how the accord -- reached on Monday in Beijing -- is put into effect. Even with its more flexible attitude in those talks, North Korea still rejected the idea of receiving any aid directly from the South at the border crossing at Panmunjon.
The North was apparently concerned in part that it would be demoralizing for its hungry soldiers to see truckloads of food rolling in from enemy territory. So the 50,000 tons of corn, noodles and other food covered by the agreement will arrive on three rail lines from China and at two seaports -- still an improvement from the single rail crossing and sole port now designated by the North to receive such aid.
The new arrangement will apparently allow organizations in the South that contribute 1,000 tons of food to designate the town in North Korea that will get the aid. But there will be no on-site monitoring, and in any case it will still be impossible for South Koreans to send food directly to particular people or families.
''The North Koreans are very suspicious of anything from the South,'' said Bernard Krisher, an American in Tokyo who recently delivered aid to North Korea. ''As desperate as they may be, there is a lot of pride there. They don't want to look like beggars, and they are suspicious of South Korean motives.''
North Korea is one of the most closed societies in the world, and there are differing reports about whether many people there are now dying of starvation. But everyone agrees that millions of North Koreans are going hungry.
''The entire population is in the process of slow death,'' said Han S. Park, a political scientist from the University of Georgia who recently returned from a trip to the North. A United Nations official who visited earlier this month described it as a ''famine in slow motion.''
The United States is sending $25 million worth of food to North Korea, and the South Korean Government has also sent a modest amount and allowed aid from the private sector, such as the 50,000 tons agreed to this week. But the South Korean authorities insist that they can send large-scale assistance only after the North agrees to a proposal for four-party peace talks involving the two Koreas, China and the United States.
''The urgent problem is peace on the Korean Peninsula,'' said Moon Moo Hong, the assistant minister of unification in South Korea. Mr. Moon said that the fundamental obstacle is North Korea's truculent attitude, and he added that while North Korea needs $300 million to buy food and avert starvation, it is spending billions of dollars on its military forces each year.
Another South Korean official said that this week's agreement was intended to encourage the North to be more flexible and join the four-party talks, in an attempt to end the state of war that technically still exists on the Korean Peninsula.
''We've done our part, and now we expect them to be more positive on the four-party talks,'' the official said.
Japan's Government has taken a tougher line on aid than most countries, partly because of recent reports that North Korean spies have kidnapped Japanese over the years and taken them to North Korea. The North has denied the charges.
So Chung On, a spokesman for North Korea in Japan, noted that Japan has huge stocks of surplus rice in storage. Some of this rice will rot in the June rains and go to waste, when it could be used to help hungry Koreans, Mr. So said.
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