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North Korea desperate for outside food aid

Seoul, Washington reluctant to resume full-scale assistance


Facing ongoing international isolation and experiencing a wobbly power transfer from its ailing leader to his young son, North Korea is escalating efforts to secure food assistance for its starving people, philanthropic groups in and out of the country said Sunday.

The communist North, which relies mostly on outside aid to feed its impoverished population of 24 million, has been facing deepening food shortages in recent years especially after leaving the aid-for-denuclearization talks with regional powers in 2008.

While the reclusive state has been upping efforts to resume the talks, South Korea and the U.S., who are main members of the six-nation dialogue, have been demanding it first prove its willingness to disarm and apologize for attacking Seoul last year.

A North Korean official recently said many of its people will “starve to death” if they don’t receive food aid soon, an official at a charity group in Seoul said.

“We often discuss food issues with the North, but they seem much more desperate recently,” the unnamed official said, adding North Korea will be spending the “hardest spring ever” without outside donations.

Another report over the weekend said North Korea’s parliamentary speaker appealed for food aid from Britain, emphasizing “an acute food shortage” his country is currently suffering from.

Choe Tae-bok, chairman of Pyongyang’s Supreme People’s Assembly, made the comments while visiting London from March 28-31, U.S.-funded Voice of America reported, quoting a British lawmaker.

The upcoming two months “would be the harshest time for North Koreans” in getting enough to eat, Choe was quoted as saying.

Among the European nations who are generally more open to providing aid to the North, which is often accused of giving food to the military instead of ordinary citizens, France donated $210,000 to its charity group Premier Urgence to feed the most vulnerable in the North, the American radio news network also reported.

The chief of the group was quoted as telling Voice of America that food items such as rice, sugar and milk powder will be sent to some 1,000 orphans and disabled people in North Korea for seven months before harvest.

Facing escalating pressure from within and out of the country that at least civilian handouts should be allowed to Pyongyang, the Seoul government last week approved the first civilian humanitarian aid since November.

Aid to North Korea had been steadily decreasing since the rightwing Lee Myung-bak government took power in 2008 and came to a complete halt in November when North Korea bombarded a border island, killed four South Koreans.

Following the government announcement, the Eugene Bell Foundation is scheduled to send some 33 billion won-worth of cure of tuberculosis, while the World Vision is waiting for approval to send some 10 billion won-worth of special nutrient food.

A coalition of 54 North Korea support groups here said they are trying to set up a meeting with North Korean officials in China this week to discuss ways of sending aid, Seoul’s Unification Ministry, which deals with North Korean affairs, said.

A confederation of five religious groups plan to hold a press confab on April 12, pressing the government to expand its scope of assistance to Pyongyang. The South Korean government has only allowed civilian handouts to the weakest stratum in the North such as women and children.

Washington, also reluctant to do Pyongyang any immediate favors, said last week it has not yet decided whether to provide aid despite the U.N.’s recent call for some 430,000 tons of food aid to support the most vulnerable groups in the North.

The U.S. suspended sending food to Pyongyang in 2009, shortly after the communist state conducted a second nuclear test.

“Not yet,” Mark Toner, State Department deputy spokesman, said when reporters in Washington asked if the U.S. has plans to send officials to assess the food situation there. “(And) our review on the food situation is ongoing, but nothing else than that.”

Some suspect North Korea of exaggerating its food shortages to stack up food that can be distributed on the 100th anniversary of the birth of its founder Kim Il-sung, which falls on April 15 of next year. The late Kim is the father of Pyongyang’s incumbent dictator Kim Jong-il.

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