Tycoon gives 500 cows to N Korea

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The Independent Online
ONE OF the world's most unusual private diplomatic initiatives is scheduled for this morning, when the head of South Korea's biggest company, Hyundai, plans to cross directly through the demilitarised zone into North Korea, accompanied by 500 head of cattle as a gift for the starving Stalinist state.

Chung Ju Yung, one of Seoul's best-known tycoons, hopes to enter North Korea through the Panmunjom crossing, becoming the first businessman to cross the land border into the North on a civilian trip. The cows are believed to be the first animals to make the direct crossing, and the gift is probably the world's first case of cow diplomacy.

The honorary chairman of Hyundai had to secure permission from both the South and North governments for his venture, which was originally supposed to take place last week. South Korea's new president, Kim Dae Jung, wants to see more contacts across the border.

Mr Chung and the cows will today travel with a convoy of 50 trucks to his birthplace, a town not far from the border, where the tycoon also wants to discuss a tourism development project.

The symbolic bovine visit comes just as the most senior North Korean diplomat ever to defect from Pyongyang has claimed that 2.5 million North Koreans have died as a result of famine conditions during the past three years. Hwang Jang Yop said yesterday in Seoul: "Hundreds of people are dying en masse from starvation." The 75-year-old said 500,000 North Koreans had starved to death in 1995 and a million each in 1996 and 1997 due to three years of bad harvests.

Mr Hwang, who ranked 24th in North Korea's political hierarchy, defected in February 1997 while in Peking, and was then spirited to South Korea. Since then he has occasionally been wheeled out by South Korea to speak publicly, often in support of Seoul's views, and in this case it is not clear how he could have any independent information about events in North Korea since his defection.

Exactly how many people have died in North Korea over the past three years remains an unknown. Estimates as high as Mr Hwang's have been given by a South Korean Buddhist charity and World Vision Relief, mostly based on interviews on the Chinese-North Korean border. But international aid organisations working inside North Korea tend to dispute these claims, pointing out that if one in ten North Koreans had been killed by famine, the aid workers should have noticed.

A United Nations team that has just conducted an assessment of crops and food supplies warned at the weekend of a large shortfall of food over the next two months. But Abdur Rashid, from the Food and Agricultural Organisation, said the high famine casualty figures "seem grossly exaggerated".

The truth is, no one has any reliable figures, and North Korea has still not allowed the UN to conduct a nationwide assessment. Access to about 12 per cent of the country, including the mountainous north, is still not allowed by aid groups, and the North Korean authorities know in advance where the aid workers will be travelling. So it might be possible for a huge death toll to be hidden.

What is agreed, however, is that whatever the actual numbers, there is immense suffering and hardship in the North.