Seoul blocking food for North

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The Independent Online


The efforts of international agencies to prevent famine in North Korea are being hampered by the obstructions of South Korea's government, according to Western diplomats and UN officials.

North Korea suffered severe floods last summer, which inundated homes and rice fields in rural areas. An international appeal by the UN's World Food Programme (WFP) has drawn a disappointing response, generating only $1.5m (pounds 1m) of the $8.8m necessary to feed half a million of the most vulnerable victims through the coldest part of the winter.

Widespread malnutrition among pregnant women and young children threatens to escalate into a famine affecting more than 2.5 million children and pregnant mothers, according to Trevor Page, the WFP's country director for North Korea.

"The government here surprised the world by asking for assistance last year," he said in Pyongyang. "They have admitted what the problem is. We have confirmed what the problem is. So where are the supplies?"

In Hawaii yesterday, the US assistant secretary of state for east Asian affairs, Winston Lord, continued talks with his counterparts from Tokyo and Seoul in an attempt to answer that question.

A food crisis has serious security implications for an economically flailing Stalinist country with a million-strong army massed near the border with its rich southern neighbour. The US has said that it is willing to provide aid beyond the $225,000 committed last year. Japan has remained cautious, although the government wishes to establish full diplomatic relations with Pyongyang.

The obstruction is the Seoul government, which repeated its position yesterday. "The government considers it difficult to extend any aid to North Korea as long as the North refuses to resume an official dialogue with the South and keeps up an antagonistic stance," said the Prime Minister, Lee Soo Sung.

Officials from a third country, Seoul insists, must verify the severity of the rice shortage, and ensure aid does not reach the armed forces, which are believed to have large stockpiles.

Seoul has good reasons for caution. The government of President Kim Young Sam was humiliated last year when the crew of a South Korean ship carrying part of a 150,000-ton rice donation were forced to fly a North Korean flag, and accused of spying.

But foreign observers suspect a more practical reason for South Korea's stubbornness. In April, President Kim's party faces testing parliamentary elections. A tough line against the North is considered a solid vote-winner.