Food aid for North Korea Near-famine conditions: U.S., South Korea and Japan overtures to prevent a crisis.

June 14, 1996

CONCERTED EFFORTS by the U.S, Japan and South Korea this week to provide North Korea with $15 million in desperately needed food aid can be justified on security as well as humanitarian grounds. All three nations have reason to fear that a collapse of the Pyongyang regime could be accompanied by a military strike southward that would cause staggering casualties and physical damage. It might bring a peace of reunification in its aftermath, but one far more burdensome than that seen in Germany.

Korea is the only place on the globe, at the present moment, where U.S. troops -- some 37,000 of them -- are within range of massive enemy artillery and ground forces. It is also a place where forward-based North Korean aircraft could hit Seoul, with its population of 12 million people, in six minutes.

Former Sen. Bob Dole, the likely Republican nominee for president, has criticized the Clinton administration for providing

food assistance to "a country that devotes its own resources to the appetite of an insatiable military." His view has currency among U.S. military analysts who doubt any accommodation can be achieved with North Korea.

The opposing view is that attempts must be made to ease tensions with Pyongyang even in the face of repeated rebuffs. South Korea sent $200 million in foodstuffs to the North last year only to be met with provocations that shut down further official initiatives until this week. But even in that period, South Korea gave the go-ahead for several small private investments, encouraged food shipments by private religious groups and plugged ahead on its lion's-share role in providing $5 billion in peaceful nuclear reactors to Pyongyang in exchange for a freeze on its military nuclear program.

Outsiders have very little information on North Korea's intentions. Because of disastrous floods last year that followed half a decade of poor harvests, the country is forced to accept assistance. The failure of its economy is plainly visible. But this is small comfort to U.S. or South Korean authorities, who fear the weaker it gets the greater is the danger of irrational action by Pyongyang.

The U.S. and South Korea proposed four-power talks with North Korea and China last April. If modest food aid can bring these two powers to the table, war in what is arguably the world's hottest spot may be averted.

Pub Date: 6/14/96

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