Starving N Koreans clutch at peace deal

Forty-four years after the Korean armistice, the government of North Korea appears to be on the verge of agreeing to historic peace talks, amid a worsening food crisis which has started to kill young children and to affect the armed forces.

North Korean officials have told their counterparts in Washington and Seoul that they will soon reply to a proposal for talks between the two Koreas, China and the United States, aimed at replacing the 1953 armistice with a permanent peace treaty.

The American Cable News Network (CNN) yesterday said North Korea would agree to the proposal and quoted a diplomat as saying Pyongyang acknowledges the "common necessity of beginning peace talks".

According to the United Nations World Food Programme, North Korean officials admit 134 children have died of malnutrition, the first official acknowledgement of deaths caused by food shortages.

In Tokyo yesterday, an American congressman who recently returned from North Korea said he had seen soldiers of the Korean People's Army whose clothes did not fit them, apparently because of weight loss.

Tony Hall, a Democrat from Ohio, spent three days in the north-west of the country, a region seldom visited by foreigners. "You look at the soldiers and their uniforms don't fit," he said. "Everyone is systematically starving together."

In the past, South Korea has resisted calls for food aid, claiming humanitarian supplies may be diverted to feed Pyongyang's 1 million-strong army.

In February, Washington and Seoul promised through the WFP $10m (pounds 5.8m) and $6m of aid respectively; yesterday, South Korean officials said this sum was "under review". Seoul insists large-scale humanitarian aid can only be discussed in the course of peace talks, but the last few days have seen a number of aid initiatives, some seemingly intended to lure Pyong- yang to the negotiating table.

On Monday, the UN officially launched a new appeal for $126m of food, agricultural supplies, and medicines. The American grain trader Cargill Inc also announced the sale to the North of 20,000 tons of grain, apparently in a barter exchange for 4,000 tons of zinc, two months after the US government granted an exception to its blanket ban on commerce with Pyongyang.

Last week, South Korea's Red Cross sent $1m of food and seed, and a charity group in Seoul yesterday announced an appeal for $20m more.

According to Congressman Hall, however, "what the world has promised and committed to as far as food aid goes is not enough, it's not even close."

During his four-day trip, he saw countryside denuded of trees, which had been cut down for firewood, freezing hospitals without any fuel oil and few drugs, and hungry people surviving on 100gm of rice a day.

"Almost every child that I saw had some kind of respiratory problem, and diarrhoea or dysentery, all of them related to diet and dirty water," he said. "North Korea needs help".