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S. Korean Principles Vs. Hunger in North

South Korean workers load rice onto a ship headed last year for North Korea. This year, the South, citing rights abuses, has delayed the 500,000 tons of food it will send north.
South Korean workers load rice onto a ship headed last year for North Korea. This year, the South, citing rights abuses, has delayed the 500,000 tons of food it will send north. (By Lee Jin-man -- Associated Press)

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By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, April 30, 2008

SEOUL -- This spring on the Korean Peninsula, human rights are on a collision course with hunger.

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South Korea's new president, Lee Myung-bak, is asking tough questions about human rights abuses in North Korea -- questions that were all but ignored by his predecessors Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun.

But he is learning that high-minded principles can quickly run amok if your neighbor is an irritable Stalinist state on the brink of a food disaster.

Amid worsening shortages that the U.N. World Food Program says may soon become a catastrophe, Lee's government has yet to dispatch large shipments of free food and fertilizer that over the past decade have become an essential crutch for North Korea's crippled economy, helping millions to avoid famine.

"The delay in shipping food and fertilizer could end up hurting the average North Korean," said Kim Am-soo, a research fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification, a government-financed think tank in Seoul. "It is a very delicate situation, and tension has increased on both sides of the border."

North Korea was barely an issue late last year when Lee won the presidency by a wide margin. Only 3 percent of people polled before the election named their northern neighbor as a primary concern.

Voters then were overwhelmingly focused on reviving South Korea's economy and increasing their own income. North Korea had backed away from nuclear confrontation and cooled its heated rhetoric, and it was disabling its main nuclear reactor.

Lee, a former mayor of Seoul and a self-made multimillionaire, promised that he would turbocharge the economy with pro-business policies. As a secondary promise, he said he would condition assistance to North Korea on economic and political reform.

When Lee took office in late February, Western diplomats generally predicted he would not make substantial changes in his predecessors' accommodating relationship with the North.

But he quickly changed the rules. At the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, South Korea voted for a resolution expressing concern over the lack of freedoms in the North, after years of abstaining or otherwise avoiding the issue.

Lee gave new marching orders to the South's Ministry of Unification -- the primary institutional legacy of presidents Kim and Roh and their efforts to increase trade, cultural and family exchanges with the North. From here forward, it would explicitly press for improvements in the human rights of North Koreans.

The orders delighted human rights groups in South Korea, which had felt ignored and received little government funding under Lee's predecessors.

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