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Politics Complicate Possibility of South Korean Food Aid to North

Various international agencies and advocacy groups say North Korea is close to its worst food crisis in a decade. However, political changes on the Korean peninsula have complicated South Korea's ability to come to the North's assistance. VOA Seoul Correspondent Kurt Achin has more.

These are the images nobody wants to see replayed. Hundreds of thousands of North Koreans are estimated to have died of starvation in the mid 1990s as a result of Pyongyang's self-imposed economic isolation and mismanagement. Now, in 2008, North Koreans again face the prospect of famine following widespread agricultural damage caused by last year's heavy flooding.

North Korea is welcoming Washington's plan to send 500,000 tons of emergency food via the United Nations World Food Program. Nevertheless, the WFP is warning another humanitarian disaster in the North looms closer by the day.

In past years, South Korea's Unification Ministry would have been first in line to announce massive, no-strings-attached transfers of food and fertilizer across the heavily armed North-South border.

But now Unification Ministry Spokesman Kim Ho-nyoun says the policy has changed, "The government sees Pyongyang's current situation as not yet urgent enough to receive the South Korean government's aid. However, if North Korea makes a formal request, we will begin offering food."

Since he was inaugurated in February, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak vowed to end the unconditional humanitarian aid of past governments -- saying future aid would be conditioned on the North's cooperation in getting rid of its nuclear weapons and other issues.

Pyongyang responded by calling Mr. Lee a traitor, and threatening to reduce the South Korean capital to "ash."

Kim Yong-hyun is a North Korea specialist at Seoul's Dongkuk University. He says Pyongyang is very unlikely to go asking for South Korean handouts, "Food aid has sometimes turned into a strength contest between the North and South. They are very concerned that asking for the South's help would be like bowing their heads in deference to the South," he said.

For the past 10 years, South Korea has sent billions of dollars worth of food, fertilizer and infrastructure investment North. None of that prevented Pyongyang from testing a nuclear weapon in 2006.

Jeong Kwang-min, a researcher at Seoul's Institute for National Security Strategy, says South Koreans demand more of a two-way dialogue with the North, "South Korea has received countless military threats and slander from the North at the same time as Seoul has offered humanitarian aid. Now, even though North Korea is known to be having severe difficulties, it is not asking the South Korean government for help, because it does not want to lose the political initiative in the inter-Korean relationship," Kwang-min explained.

South Korea's Lee administration now finds itself caught in something of a policy dilemma. Officials want to remain consistent with their firm stand on the North, but also do not wish to be seen as doing nothing in the face of a mounting hunger catastrophe.

So South Korean Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan said recently the South wants direct talks with the North on the food issue. He has also indicated South Korea's policy of insisting the North formally request aid could eventually soften.

"If North Korea's food condition gets very serious or there is a natural disaster, South Korea can provide food. The North will not have to ask," Myung-hwan said.

Even if South Korean aid resumed tomorrow-- experts say crucial fertilizing deadlines have been missed-- meaning the North may be in for another poor harvest next year.