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Seoul in dilemma over N.K. food aid

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Published : 2011-04-11 19:06
Updated : 2011-04-11 19:06

Officials delay food situation report as international calls grow for assistance


Unlike past springs, South Korea has not been making public its own assessment of the food situation in the North, indicating its dilemma as international charity groups are pressing for shipment of aid to the impoverished regime.

Since the 1990s, the South Korean government has every February released its estimation of food shortages in Pyongyang based on simulation tests, North Korea’s own statistics and outside experts’ assessments. It had announced last year that North Korea would be in need of some 1.29 million tons of extra food this year.

“I believe there will be no such assessment announced this year,” an unnamed Seoul official said, declining to comment further on whether or not the government has completed the report for this year and the reason for delay.

Taking office in 2008, the conservative Lee Myung-bak government in Seoul had been steadily decreasing aid to Pyongyang until it came to a complete halt in November after North Korea bombarded a border island and killed four of its people.

Last month, the World Food Program called on the international community for 434,000 tons of food assistance to support the most vulnerable people ― children and pregnant women ―- in North Korea.

While the U.N. agency claims almost a quarter of the North’s population of 24 million is in dire need of food, Seoul continues to question the accuracy of the assessment based on Pyongyang’s own statistics on its harvest and rationing.

“I do not think North Korea will be experiencing food shortages that are any worse than last year,” Seoul’s Unification Minister Hyun In-taek told a recent parliamentary session.

The pointman on North Korea also raised doubts about Pyongyang’s claim over its food situation, saying the communist state “appears to be storing away food for questionable reasons.”

Legislators of Seoul’s right wing ruling party also claim the Pyongyang regime is stockpiling rice and other necessities at its military warehouses to prepare for potential war or for release on the 100th anniversary of its founder.

Speculation has it that Pyongyang will make special distributions to its people in 2012, which marks the 100th birthday of its late founder Kim Il-sung, as a way of defusing internal tensions over its controversial three-generation succession to the incumbent Kim Jong-il’s youngest son.

“Yes, we are currently questioning many things regarding the issue,” another Seoul official said on the condition of anonymity.

Seoul so far remains firmly against sending large-scale, government-level donations to Pyongyang and only approves of civilian humanitarian aid.

Unlike European nations such as France and Britain, which have been making donations to the North upon the U.N. agency’s request, the U.S. has also been reluctant to do Pyongyang any immediate favors.

The U.S. suspended sending food to Pyongyang in 2009, shortly after the communist state left the denuclearization talks with regional powers and conducted a second nuclear test.

Seeing Washington as its largest negotiator, North Korea has been upping efforts to rejoin the suspended six-nation talks which also involve Seoul, Beijing, Tokyo and Moscow.

For Pyongyang, which has relied mostly on outside aid to feed its people since the late 1990s, restarting the stalled talks is its best chance at securing food assistance, analysts say.

Amid the controversy, Seoul’s chief nuclear envoy Wi Sung-lac was scheduled to leave for Washington on Tuesday to discuss North Korea’s food situation and ongoing nuclear ambitions.

During the visit, Wi will meet with Stephen Bosworth, U.S. special representative for North Korea policy, and Sung Kim, special envoy for the six-party talks on the North’s nuclear program, according to Seoul’s Foreign Ministry.

By Shin Hae-in (hayney@heraldcorp.com)

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