No. 5 — February 9, 1996

 

Weekly Review

NORTH KOREAN AID REQUEST CHALLENGES U.S., ASIAN ALLIES
--- by Barbara Wanner

Reflecting decades of suspicion concerning North Korea's militaristic goals in the Asian Pacific region, Japan and South Korea have not joined the United States in responding to Pyongyang's appeal for additional food assistance following floods last year. Representatives of the three allies met in Hawaii January 25 and 26 and concurred that North Koreans should not be allowed to "starve" and that food aid should be used to draw Pyongyang out of isolation. However, Tokyo and Seoul did not follow Washington's lead February 1 when U.S. officials announced plans to donate some $2 million to a United Nations food assistance program operating in this insular communist country. Some media reports have termed the decision a coup for North Korea in its efforts to drive wedges between the United States, Japan and South Korea. Other experts disagree, pointing to the U.S. arrangement to provide this initial, limited tranche of food aid through the World Food Program. Since this distribution method does not involve extending assistance to Pyongyang via a formal goverment-to-government deal, South Korea and Japan backed the approach. U.S. government sources also point out that Washington would not have offered food aid had U.N. officials not presented a detailed plan to ensure its effective distribution.

Although North Korea concluded an agreement with the United States in October 1994 aimed at defanging Pyongyang's suspected nuclear weapons development capability (see JEI Report No. 41B, October 28, 1994), both South Korea and Japan remain suspicious of their neighbor's intentions to comply with the accord. Their skepticism is based on Pyongyang's subsequent behavior. South Korean intelligence reportedly has noted that North Korea in recent months moved more troops and aircraft to forward positions near the demilitarized zone. Other potentially provocative behavior includes Pyongyang's detention last year on spying charges of a crewman from one of the South Korean ships that had delivered relief rice. Seoul's intelligence arm also contends that North Korea's food stockpiles remain adequate to feed the country's 22 million people for the better part of a year, particularly if food stored for military uses were to be released. In discussions with their American and Japanese counterparts in Hawaii South Korean officials cited these reasons for suspecting that Pyongyang most probably would divert the food aid to feed the military rather than distribute it to civilians in the northwest region whose crops were destroyed by flooding last fall. This catastrophe exacerbated already serious food shortages. According to the February 8, 1996 edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review, a recent North Korean army defector substantiated these concerns in effect when he told the media that his unit had received "brown-sacked" South Korean rice instead of North Korean rice, which typically comes in white sacks.

Tokyo apparently shares some of Seoul's concerns. According to Hiroshi Hashimoto, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, participants at the Hawaii meeting reached the conclusion that, while the food situation in North Korea is "critical," it has not reached a state yet "where famine has been caused by it." Expressing similar sentiments to the media February 1, another Japanese government insider who did not wish to be identified described as "special and exceptional" Tokyo's decision last June to send some ¥2.4 billion ($24 million at ¥100=$1.00) worth of rice to North Korea to help ease the food shortage there. Under the terms of this humanitarian accord the Japanese government agreed to ship 150,000 metric tons of rice to North Korea free of charge and sell its cash-strapped communist neighbor another 150,000 metric tons on a concessional basis. Since Japan and North Korea still do not have formal diplomatic ties, the free rice was delivered by the Japanese Red Cross to its North Korean counterpart. Tokyo, in fact, has stated quite plainly that normalization of relations with Pyongyang is a prerequisite for disbursal of large-scale aid of any kind (see JEI Report No. 25B, July 7, 1995).

While sharing Japanese and South Korean suspicions about North Korea's intentions on the Korean peninsula, the United States nevertheless fears the consequences of widespread starvation in North Korea, officials in Washington say. The specific worry is that Pyongyang might behave even more aggressively toward its southern neighbor as a means of diverting the public's attention from the food crisis and justifying the priority given to the military's need for sustenance. James Laney, the U.S. ambassador to South Korea, recently was quoted as saying that a popular uprising in North Korea triggered by famine could create "very difficult consequences for all of us." There also have been reports that some U.S. quarters have wanted to use food assistance as a carrot to reward North Korea's compliance with the 1994 nuclear agreement and secure continued implementation.

In announcing the $2 million aid package American officials emphasized its humanitarian nature. In February 2 remarks to the media Winston Lord, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, termed the package "a symbolic, humanitarian gesture." Mr. Lord also emphasized with care that neither South Korea nor Japan objected to the package and that the food aid would be channeled through the U.N.'s reputable World Food Program. "Japan expressly gave us the green light for providing limited aid," the senior State Department official reportedly said. He added that Washington decided not to tap the U.S. food aid program known as PL 480 in deference to South Korea. PL 480 was used during the post-Korean War years to help rebuild South Korea in part through infusions of U.S. flour, wheat and other grains. Mr. Lord said that Washington decided to draw from another fund for the North Korean food aid to avoid the appearance of dealing with Pyongyang on terms equal to those offered many years before to Seoul, a longtime ally.

All three countries evidently acknowledge that Washington's $2 million infusion of food assistance does not come close to providing Pyongyang with the food and other resources it needs to overcome the country's tremendous economic problems. Officials in Washington, Tokyo and Seoul also stress that the ball now is in the court of Kim Jong Il, the apparent leader of North Korea. Mr. Kim must demonstrate that he wants peace on the Korean peninsula if he is to receive more substantial amounts, according to reports from the Hawaii meeting.

The views expressed in this report are those of the author
and do not necessarily represent those of the Japan Economic Institute

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