THE U.S. MAY NEED to provide food aid unilaterally to avert starvation in North Korea. This would have the additional purpose of preserving nuclear cooperation with that paranoid state. The U.S. and South Korea are in effect bribing the North not to develop nuclear weapons.
The U.S., South Korea and Japan agreed to coordinate aid to North Korea but, meeting on Wednesday and Thursday, failed to do so. Meanwhile, hunger in North Korea gets worse, and its government (the military and the elusive Kim Jong Il) less predictable. Winter army maneuvers were called off for a fuel shortage, but the air force was moved surreptitiously to bases near South Korea, so that an attack would allow little warning.
Hunger in North Korea is triggered by disastrous floods last August. These exacerbated an irrational, failed agriculture. One in 20 North Koreans is a soldier. Army food reserves are not released to prevent civilian malnutrition. Stalinist projects to expand agriculture fail. Private farming is still largely forbidden. The regime says, "Rice is socialism," and resists reforms on Chinese or Vietnamese models.
It is not easy to know how bad the shortage is. North Korea forecasts mass starvation as early as March without massive aid. U.N. World Food Program predictions are as gloomy. The U.S., which gives priority to halting nuclear proliferation and may have the best intelligence, is in the middle. Japan is giving aid now and will not raise it. South Korea's government is the least sympathetic, blaming the North for its ills and predicting no crisis before late summer.
Last year, South Korea sent 150,000 tons of rice North, only to be denounced. Now Seoul wants assurance of a friendly response. While sending no aid itself, the government allows the South Korean Red Cross to ship food, reflecting the concern of many South Koreans.
The Clinton administration has kept its eye on the need to de-fang North Korea's nuclear capability and avert war. This is more important than winning ideological points, even when those are right. The aid should be used to the extent possible to open the forbidden world of North Korea. But when people face starvation, the rice should move.