UK cash helps desperate Pyongyang

The British government has given half a million pounds of aid to Stalinist North Korea, and agreed to send English teaching experts to Pyongyang, in the latest sign of increasingly warm relations with its former Korean War enemy.

The pounds 495,000 cash donation was made a fortnight ago through the International Federation of Red Cross Societies (IFRC) on the eve of a historic visit to Pyongyang by a high level delegation of British diplomats. The four- day mission, lead by David Coates, head of the Foreign Office's Far Eastern and Pacific Department, was the first British mission to visit the North since the Korean Armistice in 1953 and comes at a time of increasing desperation for the Stalinist state.

North Korea is in the grip of a worsening food crisis, caused by a series of devastating floods coupled with the collapse of the country's collectivist economy. Officials of the Red Cross and United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) who recently returned from the North said that people in the countryside have been reduced to eating grass, roots and the bark of trees to supplement rice rations, which have been reduced to 100 grams a day.

The UN will soon launch an appeal for more than $100m (pounds 60m) to tide the country over until the next harvest, but already children are showing signs of advanced malnutrition. "Millions of people are going to starve to death this summer if the international community does not get a lot of food to North Korea soon," said Catherine Bertini, executive director of the WFP in Tokyo yesterday.

The British visit comes just five months after a similar meeting in Warsaw last October, and appears to mark the latest stage in a discreet but concerted effort to bolster British involvement in a region hitherto dominated by Japan and the United States. Officials play down the significance of the talks, but several small but significant developments suggest that both sides are concerned to improve relations.

Mr Coates and his party discussed proposals for four-way peace talks involving the two Koreas, plus China and the United States. After a visit to the Pyongyang School of Foreign Languages, the delegation agreed to send written materials and a British Council adviser to improve teaching methods.

In cultivating Pyongyang, the Foreign Office runs the risk of alienating South Korea, which is fearful of being excluded from agreements between Pyongyang and third countries. According to British officials, the talks in Pyongyang had to wait until after a long-postponed meeting between the two Koreas and the US, which finally took place in New York last month. A Seoul newspaper, the Chung An Ilbo recently ran an article speculating that Britain would soon open a diplomatic bureau in Pyongyang, which the Foreign Office denies.

On the other hand, Britain lags behind several of its European competitors in contacts with the North. Pyongyang has a small mission in the London office of the International Maritime Organisation, but it is insignificant compared to a much larger delegation in Berlin, for instance. Germany also has its own diplomatic interests section in Pyongyang, as well as a full time trade official, sponsored by a group of big companies.