- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 2, 2003

From combined dispatches

The Bush administration plans to continue humanitarian food shipments to North Korea in the new year, U.S. officials said, despite Pyongyang's continued belligerence in pursuit of its nuclear ambitions.

"We expect to continue providing the same level of aid to the [United Nations] World Food Program in Korea as we have in the past," a senior administration official said in reply to questions from Reuters news agency. "We don't use food as a political weapon."

But North Korea appealed yesterday to widespread anti-American sentiment among South Koreans by seeking support in its confrontation with the United States over nuclear weapons.

"It can be said that there exists on the Korean peninsula at present only confrontation between the Koreans in the North and the South and the United States," the communist state said in its New Year's message.

It is North Korea's long-standing strategy to drive a wedge between Seoul and its chief ally, Washington.

A senior South Korean diplomat arrived in Beijing yesterday to seek China's support in persuading North Korea to give up its nuclear ambitions.

Lee Tae-sik, South Korea's deputy foreign minister, will meet Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Beijing today, South Korean officials said.

South Korea also plans to send a vice foreign minister to Moscow later this week. China and Russia maintain friendly ties with the communist North, and they have urged a peaceful solution to the rising tension.

On the issue of food aid, the United States has argued in the past that such aid should be isolated from geo-strategic considerations an idea summed up by former President Ronald Reagan's dictum that "a hungry child knows no politics."

But the timing of a U.S. food-aid announcement was up in the air while Washington pressed to reverse the North's recent steps toward restarting a nuclear program frozen in a 1994 nonproliferation deal with the United States.

The aid would come at a time when the reclusive communist state long considered by Washington as one of its most dangerous enemies is perhaps more vulnerable to outside pressure than ever.

In the mid- to late 1990s, as many as 2.5 million North Koreans, or about 10 percent of the population, died in a famine.

North Korea, which can not feed its 22 million people without outside help, risked losing key sources of aid in the recent weeks by moving to restart its mothballed nuclear program, expelling U.N. inspectors and threatening to pull out of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

One of the two nuclear inspectors expelled by North Korea, Missak Demirdjian, arrived yesterday in Vienna, Austria, on a flight from Beijing. He fended off all questions, saying only: "We, of course, hope to go back as soon as possible."

The United States has already cut off monthly fuel oil shipments it had been making since 1994, worth about $75 million annually.

In a Dec. 3 appeal, the U.N. agency urged donor nations to help feed 6.4 million "particularly vulnerable" North Koreans among a population of 22 million, as part of a $201 million emergency operation this year.

The main beneficiaries would be children from ages 6 months to 10 years, pregnant and nursing women, the elderly, and those particularly affected by natural disasters and the country's dire economic straits, said Rick Corsino, the group's country director for North Korea.

The senior official who responded to Reuters' queries said the administration would not know how much it will contribute until the fiscal 2004 budget was completed. It is due to be sent to Congress next month.

Rep. Mark Steven Kirk, an Illinois Republican who toured North Korea in the 1990s as a House International Relations Committee staffer, said North Korea's behavior had already cost it food aid from Japan and Europe.

"No matter how incompetent the regime may be, it's critical that we step in to save the next generation," Mr. Kirk said, adding that the administration was loath to make a food-aid announcement in the same week that Pyongyang was expelling the last two U.N. nuclear monitors.

North Korea's emphasis on "cooperation" with South Korea comes at a time when Seoul is criticizing a U.S. push to isolate North Korea in the standoff over Pyongyang's nuclear program.

North Korea's overtures are also driven by economic needs, analysts said.

Under President Kim Dae-jung's "sunshine policy" of engaging the North, South Korea has begun a series of unfinished inter-Korean projects, including a cross-border rail link, and tourist and industrial parks, that would bring the impoverished North badly needed cash.

Although North Korea's recent decision to reactivate its nuclear program angered much of the world, it provoked little reaction among most South Koreans.

Both Mr. Kim and President-elect Roh Moo-hyun, who will take office in late February, insist that North Korea not develop nuclear weapons.

But they have vowed to press on with an engagement policy toward the North and have expressed concern that Washington might impose heavy economic pressure on Pyongyang.

Nearly 2 million troops are massed on both sides of the Korean border. About 37,000 U.S. soldiers back the South Koreans.

Anti-U.S. sentiment is evident on the streets of Seoul. Thousands of South Koreans have joined street rallies to protest the deaths of two teenage girls accidentally killed in June by a U.S. military vehicle.

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