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Provide food aid to N.K. with conditions attached

North Korea has fallen victim again to floods, severe cold and failed harvests ― and the case for food assistance to stave off famine is again being dictated by strategic considerations. Serves the North right, critics of Pyongyang’s duplicitous ways would say.

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak has shocked his people’s kin sensibilities by withholding any form of cooperation (not just food shipments) until the North has apologized for two unprovoked attacks last year, and also for suggesting that food assistance sent would not go to the starving. He says it would be stocked up for next year’s celebrations to mark the birth centennial of Pyongyang founding father Kim Il-sung.

Seoul’s intelligence networks would know more about the North’s ground situation than any other nation’s, but pushing realpolitik to a level that ignores an unfolding tragedy across the border may be hard for the South Korean people to stomach.

From field observations by private charities and United Nations inspectors, the malnutrition afflicting children, the old and pregnant women is bad. North Korean leader Kim Jong-il has this week been on his third visit to China in 12 months, believed linked to the aid issue. Food shortages have to be extreme for a travel-wary man to be chugging his way by train to China so frequently. Last August in Beijing, he reportedly asked for half a million tons of grain.

The best available evaluation of the North’s nutrition needs after last season’s crop failures has been put by the U.N.’s World Food Programme (WFP) at 450,000 tons. This will be enough for only six million severely undernourished people, out of a 24 million population. North Korea’s last great famine, in the 1990s, resulted in an unverified two million deaths from hunger and disease.

Starving people who are victims of a cruel, indifferent government should not be doubly punished in a futile campaign to get Pyongyang to recant its nuclear policies. Certain conditions can be attached to the aid, as China might do by linking it to Pyongyang’s agreement to resume the six-party talks. A blanket refusal to help is in the circumstances unconscionable.

For Seoul, it may make tactical sense. But neutral observers would recoil from the callousness. The United States has been measured in its approach, implying it is ready to approve assistance pending a ground inspection by an envoy whose brief is North Korean human rights issues. The WFP has also received pledges of 100,000 tons from Russia and several European nations after it put out an appeal. The South Korean government should relent. There are some matters that go beyond quotidian contests of will.

(The Straits Times, May 27)
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