S. Korea Suspends Food Aid to North

By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, July 14, 2006

TOKYO, July 14 -- South Korea on Thursday suspended humanitarian aid to North Korea until it agrees to return to international nuclear disarmament talks. The action infuriated visiting North Korean officials, who immediately cut off high-level talks in South Korea and stormed back home.

The decision to postpone consideration of a North Korean request for 500,000 tons of rice marked the South's first punitive action against its impoverished communist neighbor since July 4, when the North test-fired seven missiles, including a long-range Taepodong-2. The move came as the administration of South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun confronted sharp public criticism at home for what many there viewed as a weak response to the tests.

South Korea also reiterated its deep opposition to a push by Japan and the United States to impose broader sanctions on North Korea through a draft resolution at the U.N. Security Council. Seoul has vowed to maintain its "sunshine policy" of engagement, which has fostered the warmest ties between the Stalinist North and the capitalist South since the Korean War ended in stalemate more than half a century ago.

But the decision to follow through with a previous threat to suspend food aid if North Korea tested missiles -- a threat many experts doubted the Seoul government would stick to -- displayed a new willingness by the South to use its significant economic clout to apply pressure on the North.

The North Koreans -- whose economic assistance from the South is topped only by aid from China -- appeared jolted by the decision. Pyongyang's delegation departed abruptly on Thursday afternoon from talks in the South Korean city of Pusan that were originally scheduled to end Friday. South Korea's Yonhap news service reported that the North Korean officials left after circulating a statement calling the rupture the result of "reckless" attempts by South Korea to raise "irrelevant issues." Those issues, South Korean officials said, were the recent missile tests and the North's refusal to return to six-party talks on its nuclear program.

The North bitterly condemned the decision to suspend food aid, saying, "The South side will pay a price before the nation for causing the collapse of the ministerial talks and bringing a collapse of North-South relations."

South Korean officials, who in recent years have rolled out the red carpet for their visiting North Korean kin, this time offered them a simple meal and hospitality without the customary sightseeing excursions and photo opportunities. When the North's representatives understood they would not be returning with promises of more food aid, they simply left.

For the United States and Japan, which are both pushing for a strong draft resolution at the United Nations that would ban international trade in North Korean missile and other military technology, the South Korean action was a rare diplomatic bright spot.

Christopher R. Hill, Washington's top envoy on North Korea, left Beijing for Washington on Thursday after it became apparent that Chinese efforts to persuade the Pyongyang government to return to the six-party talks had failed. Before leaving, Hill said there was no indication that the North Koreans had decided to end their boycott of the talks, which have been stalled since last November.

Japan, which has been deeply rattled by the missile tests, has pushed for a tough resolution that would impose sanctions on the North. But Japan's Kyodo news service quoted several government officials early Friday as saying the Tokyo government might be willing to offer a compromise resolution taking into account a Chinese and Russian proposal to censure North Korea with only voluntary punitive actions.

"The Chinese are as baffled as we are," Hill told reporters in Beijing. "China has done so much for that country, and that country seems intent on taking all of China's generosity and then giving nothing back."

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