This time, promises alone may not feed North Korea

President Obama wrapped up his tour of Asian countries, which included stops in Japan, Singapore, China and South Korea. He addressed security and environmental policy, the economy and U.S.-Asia relations.
By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, November 19, 2009

SEOUL -- For the Obama administration, North Korea has followed a familiar script. It has made trouble, exploding a nuclear device. It has made nice, inviting U.S. officials to visit. And it has made a mess of growing food, needing handouts from the rich countries it threatens.

President Obama, in a meeting here Thursday with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, will focus on North Korea's vexingly repetitive behavior and discuss strategies to lure the isolated state into giving up its nuclear program.

One lure was announced last week: The Obama administration will satisfy the North's desire for high-level personal contact with the United States, sending a special envoy, Stephen W. Bosworth, to Pyongyang. His limited mission will be to persuade North Korean officials to return to Beijing and resume disarmament talks with China, Russia, Japan, South Korea and the United States.

But Obama is not planning to win concessions from Kim Jong Il's government by sending food, even though a food crisis is again developing in the North.

"Food aid will not be a part of the package," said a senior administration official traveling with the president. "This is about North Korea's obligations with regard to its nuclear program and the six-party talks."

The Obama administration says it knows better than to reward North Korea for merely promising to stop behaving badly. As Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has put it, "I am tired of buying the same horse twice."

Still, it is a Washington buying habit that has proved hard to break. Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush traded food for talks with North Korea at least 13 times, according to a chart compiled by Stephan Haggard and Marcus Noland, co-authors of several books on famine in the North.

The tough line that Obama appears to be taking on food has been more than matched in the past two years by South Korea.

Under Lee, a right-of-center construction executive who was elected president in 2007, Seoul halted a decade of massive and unconditional shipments of food and fertilizer to North Korea.

The cutbacks infuriated Kim's government while depriving the North of about half a million tons of food a year and of the chemical fertilizer needed to grow an additional half-million tons.

As a consequence of those aid cuts and of its own disastrous agriculture policies, North Korea is again at risk of widespread and life-threatening food shortages, experts say.

"It is very urgent now because all the reserves have been used up in the past two years," said Kwon Tae-jin, a director of the Seoul-based Korea Rural Economic Institute. "At this harvest, even farmers are having a hard time getting access to their own food because the military extracts a big part of production."

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company