This time, promises alone may not feed North Korea
U.S. seems determined to hold out food aid until it sees moves to disarm

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."

State distribution of food rations has declined continually throughout 2009, Kwon said. Much of this food, he said, is being diverted by corrupt officials and sold in private markets.

A food crisis will strike North Korea between March and June of next year, if estimates of a poor harvest are accurate, according to Kim Chun-sig, director general of policy at South Korea's Unification Ministry.

North Korea lacks arable land, denies incentives to farmers and cannot afford fuel or modern machinery. Even in good years, it falls about 1 million tons short of the 5.5 million tons of rice, corn and other crops it needs to fill the most basic needs of its 23.5 million people.

In the past year, U.N. food agencies have estimated that about a third of the population is malnourished, with rates highest among children, pregnant women and the elderly. Stunting is common, infant mortality is abnormally high, and severe malnutrition among young children has caused widespread mental retardation, doctors and U.N. nutritionists say.

"The current diet of most North Koreans is far from normal from a nutritional perspective and puts the health and development of the people at risk," said Torben Due, country director in Pyongyang for the U.N. World Food Program.

North Korea's government has announced that this year's crop increased slightly over last year's, but South Korean experts have concluded that the official crop report is a gross overestimate and that bad weather has caused a 20 percent decline in the supply of corn, a staple of the country's poorest people.

In a move that suggests urgent need, North Korean Red Cross officials meeting last month with their South Korean counterparts asked for 100,000 tons of food aid. South Korea countered with an offer of 10,000 tons.

Seoul has offered much larger donations, but only if it can monitor who receives the food.

"To provide food aid, we must be assured of transparency in distribution of it," said Kim at the Ministry of Unification.

North Korea has refused to discuss food monitoring.

Early this year, a Bush-era donation of 500,000 tons of U.S. food aid was suspended, apparently because of a dispute over monitoring.

North Korea declined to abide by its pledge to place "no limits" on the number of Korean-speaking employees from the World Food Program who could monitor delivery of U.S. food.

To calm widespread fear inside North Korea of imminent food shortages, North Korean radio made a highly unusual announcement in September that Russia and Vietnam have sent aid, according to the Seoul-based Institute for Far Eastern Studies.

An unknown in the food aid equation is China, North Korea's closest ally and primary patron.

It usually provides about a quarter-million tons of food at discounted prices, but this year there is no way to know what it will sell to the North.

In August, Beijing abruptly and without explanation stopped publishing figures for its trade with Pyongyang.

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