Famine forces north to reunite Korean families

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The Independent Online
NORTH KOREAN negotiators holding talks with the South agreed yesterday to discuss allowing the reunion of millions of families who have been separated for almost half a century.

Progress in the first high-level contact between the two Koreas in four years followed a blunt message from the South that large-scale aid to its famine-stricken northern neighbour depended on political concessions.

Talks that began at the weekend in Peking moved to a working level to discuss family reunions along with Southern proposals to exchange envoys and reopen liaison offices in the border-truce village of Panmunjom.

The Korean peninsula has been split by razor wire and minefields since the armistice of 1953, which still left the North and the South technically at war. Time is now running out for many ageing Koreans with relatives across the border.

Meanwhile, the head of the World Food Programme said in Peking that six out of every 10 North Korean children were now being born underweight. "All one has to do is to see skeletal children in the hospitals to know that this not only is the state of some of the children, but that they reflect the state of their families and their mothers and fathers," Catherine Bertini said after visiting North Korea.

She added that the World Food Programme had threatened to cut back relief deliveries after the North barred its inspectors from 50 of the country's 210 counties, where it said there were sensitive military installations.

Earlier, the French humanitarian group Medecins Sans Frontieres issued a report saying army and government officials were stealing international relief supplies, and only a bare minimum was getting through to the sick and dying. The report, based on interviews with North Korean refugees and Chinese travellers, spoke of cannibalism among North Korea's desperate population of 23 million.

The Pyongyang government has sought the current Peking talks in order to ask for as much as 200,000 tonnes of fertiliser.

Three years of floods and drought have exacerbated the damage caused by disastrous policies of collectivised farming. The soil is exhausted, and South Korea is the North's best hope for technical aid to rehabilitate agriculture and wean the country off overseas food handouts.

The talks are the first high-level contact between North and South Korea since the death of Pyongyang's "Great Leader", Kim Il-sung, in 1994.

The South's new president Kim Dae-jung, has made reconciliation with the North a top priority and is extending an olive branch.

Last month, the South Korean Red Cross agreed to ship 50,000 tonnes of food aid, mostly grain, to the North.