The United States delivered its last shipment of grain to North Korea on Dec. 10 and has imposed strict conditions for resuming food aid, leading analysts to conclude that Washington is using hunger as a weapon in its confrontation with North Korea over nuclear weapons.
Administration officials deny that they have ended food aid over the nuclear issue, saying the United States is simply demanding the same accountability for its aid that it uses elsewhere in the world. They say there has been no change in long-standing policy not to use humanitarian aid for political purposes. The United States has contributed more than half the grain to an international effort that helped lift North Korea from famine and last year fed more than 6 million of the country's 22 million people.
But many analysts in Asia see that as political cover and note that the food aid has stopped flowing just as the United States seeks to pressure North Korea to end its nuclear weapons program.
The conclusion was bolstered by President Bush's statement Tuesday that he would consider offering "an initiative which would talk about energy and food" if North Korea ends its nuclear aspirations.
Bush's aides later clarified his remarks, saying he was talking about a program to help boost North Korea's agriculture, not direct food aid. But that interpretation was unlikely to have convinced North Korea, which has seen the grain ships stop coming just as it girds for a severe winter, and which views the Bush administration as intent on toppling the government.
The U.N. secretary general, Kofi Annan, was alarmed enough to immediately dispatch a special envoy to Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, last week to assess the humanitarian situation. The envoy, Maurice Strong, warned Tuesday in Beijing of a "significant crisis in March or April" because "the pipeline is drying up."
"I think the Bush administration has decided that they have to push North Korea to the corner to trigger change and concessions," said Toshimitsu Shigemura, a North Korea expert at Takushoku University in Tokyo.
"The United States has been the only country, other than South Korea, that has been consistently giving food aid to the north in hundreds of thousands of tons. The impact on North Korea [of a U.S. aid cutoff] would be enormous," he said. "The U.S. can put conditions on resuming the food aid, and use it as a card for bargaining."
Andrew S. Natsios, head of the U.S. Agency for International Development, has said the food is being halted to force North Korea to drop its restrictions on international monitors who try to ensure the food is distributed to hungry civilians, not the military.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher has said the aid will resume when a budget for the assistance is approved. But Natsios has promised Congress that North Korea would be required to permit more food monitors, give them more freedom, and allow them in parts of the country that North Korea has declared off-limits, all unpalatable requirements for Pyongyang.
Natsios contends that North Korea, having emerged from the famines of the mid-1990s and with improved harvests, is not in such dire need. But officials of the U.N. agency in charge of the food distribution say the absence of U.S. contributions will have a severe effect on a population that already subsists on gruel and often must resort to eating leaves and roots.
"There's just not enough food to go around in this country," Richard Corsino, head of the World Food Program in Pyongyang, said by telephone Friday. "Even though they had a fairly good crop this year, they are still over a million tons short."
The United States provided more than 250,000 tons of the 400,000 tons of food distributed last year in North Korea, Corsino said. So far this year, only the European Union and Italy have pledged contributions of about 65,000 tons, according to Gerald Bourke, a WFP spokesman in Beijing. Without more assistance, "we would be looking at a major food crisis. There are so many people living on the edge," Bourke said.
North Korea's famine in the mid-1990s brought a death toll that by some estimates reached 2 million. A huge international aid program began then, led by the U.S. donations to WFP and bolstered by assistance from South Korea, Japan, China and the European Union.
Some analysts say the hardships in North Korea have made the government desperate for assistance and vulnerable to new pressure from the cessation of food aid. Others point to the government's stubborn refusal in the 1990s to aggressively seek outside help that would belie its state policy of juche, or self-reliance. They say North Korean leader Kim Jong Il would allow more people to starve rather than submit to U.S. pressure.
"If food aid from the U.S. stops, at least 300,000 to 400,000 North Koreans will die of hunger. This winter is critical to them," said Chang Seong Chong, a North Korean analyst at the Sejong Research Institute in Seoul.
"From the North Korean point of view, they often say, 'We'd rather die standing up straight, than live kneeling down,' " Chang said. "If food aid is used as a weapon or stick to tame them, no matter whether hundreds of thousands or millions die of hunger, they will react with that attitude."
But Chang added, "I don't think neighboring countries will allow that." China, which has food surpluses, or South Korea, which has just reaffirmed the government's platform of advocating good relations with the North, might try to fill the void left by the missing U.S. food.
Without it, "there would be major instability in the Korean Peninsula," which North Korea's neighbors do not want, said Suh Jae Jean, of the Korean Institute for National Unification. "I don't think the U.S. will make such a decision. I strongly believe that North Korea's survival is also in the interest of the U.S." Some Bush advisors have urged the administration to seek a change of government in North Korea, as it is doing in Iraq, although with economic pressure, not military.
South Korea's Ministry of Unification said in a study released in Seoul on Friday that the cutback in international aid is likely to hurt North Korea's economy and reverse its positive expansion after two years of good harvests and last year's economic reform.
But economic collapse could bring a chaotic situation that could spill over into other countries. "The difference this time is that people won't remain silent," said Lee Young Hwa, an assistant professor studying the North Korean economy at Kansai University in Osaka, Japan. "The young, healthy men will riot. The elderly, the pregnant women and children will flee." Kim "doesn't care if his people are starved to death, but he doesn't like his people fleeing," he said.
Diplomats and officials last week played down talk of such extreme situations. South Korean president-elect Roh Moo Hyun told a group of businessmen in Seoul on Friday that "there was no need to worry" much about the nuclear crisis, softening the shrill edge of remarks the previous day by South Korean Defense Minister Lee Jun, who said the country was prepared for the "worst-case scenario."
Roh repeated his view that "there needs to be dialogue between North Korea and the United States," a view U.S. officials seem reluctantly to be moving toward. Although U.S. officials have said Bush's offer to talk is not an offer of negotiations, and although North Korea's propaganda outlet has derided the offer, officials in the region say they believe a diplomatic solution is achievable.
Special correspondents Joohee Cho in Seoul and Sachiko Sakamaki in Tokyo contributed to this report.