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05:21 Japan Refuses to Send Surplus Rice to Hungry N. Koreans

Publication Date: Tuesday March 25, 1997 A Section; Page A12

Copyright 1997, The Washington Post Co. All Rights Reserved By Mary Jordan Washington Post Foreign Service

TOKYO, March 24 -- The Japanese government is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to store record amounts of surplus rice, much of which is aging, losing taste and in danger of spoiling. The little-known stockpiles, which fill 3,500 public warehouses, could feed Japan's 125 million people for about four months.

In nearby North Korea, United Nations officials estimate that 20 million people go to bed hungry every night as famine looms, disease spreads and chronic malnutrition threatens the entire population.

The United States, South Korea and other nations recently set aside their deep differences with North Korea to pledge a new round of emergency food aid, separating feelings for a repressive government from those for an impoverished populace. But Japan has refused to open its vast rice reserves -- which many people here are not aware of -- despite the urgings of international aid groups, the United Nations and even Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright.

Recently, critics of Japan's policy have focused attention on storehouses filled with 3 million to 4 million tons of rice, some of which is getting old and therefore cannot be sold to the Japanese public. As more people become aware of the rice stockpiles, anger and indignation are rising that tons of it may be sold for animal feed rather than shipped to hungry North Koreans.

"It is very simple. If Japan has too much rice, they should help their neighbors in need," said So Chung On, spokesman for the largest association of North Koreans in Japan, where more than 200,000 people are believed to be of North Korean ancestry. "Of course it is their right not to help, but we regret they will not."

Bernard Krisher, an American in Tokyo who is raising money privately for North Korean food aid, said it is unconscionable that Japan is "hoarding rice as women and children are starving."

The U.S. government, which recently pledged $10 million in aid to North Korea, is also concerned about Japan's reluctance. On a visit here last month, Albright asked Japanese officials to join the United States in food aid. A U.S. official traveling with Vice President Gore in Tokyo said today that Washington's urging Japan to send aid is "pretty much a constant feature of our diplomacy."

The U.S. government is worried that spreading hunger could destabilize North Korea's government, perhaps even leading to a revolt. And with 37,000 American soldiers facing North Korea's border, chaos inside the Stalinist country is seen as a direct military threat to the United States.

Concern about the plight of peasants inside reclusive North Korea and the stability of the Korean Peninsula has promoted a flurry of official U.S. visits there. Gore is scheduled to visit American troops near the border in South Korea after visiting Beijing this week. Five U.S. senators headed by Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, are also scheduled to make a rare visit to North Korea on Friday.

But so far Japan, which normally hews closely to U.S. policy on North Korea and is the world's biggest foreign aid donor, refuses to budge on the aid issue. Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto has said it would be difficult for Japan to give aid now in light of recently disclosed evidence suggesting that North Korean agents kidnapped several Japanese citizens in the 1970s. Those Japanese, including a 13-year-old girl, allegedly were taken to North Korea to help train spies in Japanese behavior and language.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Hiroshi Hashimoto said the government's foreign aid policy should not be dictated by how much rice the country has. Further, he said, "the Japanese government has to take into consideration the sentiments of the Japanese people who have concerns [about the alleged] kidnapping."

In the past, Japan has given food aid to North Korea, but officials said it is refusing now because the political climate has changed.

Some government officials said in private, however, that the United States is likely to increase its aid package soon and that international pressure on Japan may soon prompt it to reverse its decision.

Frank Shinya, senior minister of a Tokyo Christian congregation, said Japanese politicians may be misreading Japanese public sentiment, and that not all people want the government to link abductions that occurred two decades ago with humanitarian aid. His overwhelmingly Japanese congregation of 900 just donated $20,000 to the North Korean food effort. "I don't want to stand in judgment, but the [government's] decision seems wrong. When people are in such dire straits, that should supersede politics," he said.

As a matter of national security, the Japanese government keeps at least 1.5 tons of rice in reserve, according to Mitsuru Kato of Japan's Food Agency. But Kato said the government now has 3 million tons on hand, all of which will be used for human consumption.

Others disagree with that assessment. They say stocks are nearly 4 million tons, vast quantities of which are from 1994 and 1995. Every bag of rice must be stamped with the date of harvest, and many consumers believe rice loses its taste after two years. In Japan, buying aged rice is about as appealing as buying aged French bread.

Staff writer John F. Harris contributed to this report. (END) 05:21 EST March 25, 1997

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