- The Washington Times - Monday, October 20, 2003

SEOUL — The head of a leading South Korean humanitarian aid agency said yesterday that efforts to raise money for North Korea had hit a wall because of Pyongyang’s determination to advance its nuclear arms program.

Yi Il-ha also acknowledged that his organization was facilitating contacts between South Korean and North Korean intelligence officials, as Seoul and its four partners — the United States, Russia, China and Japan — work to persuade Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear ambitions.

“We are working with the KCIA,” Mr. Yi said, referring to the South Korean intelligence agency by its former acronym. “Sometimes KCIA also accompany us and also government officials. We talk to North Korea and tell them. I introduce them.”

The wrangle over North Korea’s nuclear ambitions has divided South Koreans on how to deal with their northern neighbor.

“The nuclear program issue has impacted our organization,” said Mr. Yi, president of the Christian-based Good Neighbors Inc. aid agency. “It is very difficult to raise funds to help North Korea.

“Some people attack our organization for helping the North Koreans,” he added.

That mood is in sharp contrast to the euphoria after the historic 2000 summit meeting between then-South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and North Korea’s Kim Jong Il, when there was a rush to pledge aid to the millions starving in the north.

Mr. Yi, whose organization receives some $1 million a year from the Seoul government, said the nuclear issue had also sparked a fight within his organization, forcing the agency’s former leader to quit.

“The board chairman resigned over that issue. He wanted to stop [aid to North Koreans] because of the nuclear and political issue,” said Mr. Yi, speaking to a small group of international journalists.

Cutting aid to North Korea is advocated by South Korea’s main opposition party, which has challenged the embattled President Roh Muh-hyun’s policy of quiet engagement with Pyongyang despite its nuclear agenda.

The United States, Seoul’s main ally with some 38,000 troops stationed here, is demanding that North Korea completely and verifiably give up its nuclear weapons program. Pyongyang has insisted on a formal non-aggression pact in return.

“They think the U.S. is the enemy now,” said Mr. Yi, who leaves for Pyongyang later this week. “The nuclear [program] is their life, the only way to protect themselves from the U.S.”

He believes the North Koreans would give up their nuclear program if Mr. Bush agreed to a security arrangement. “Their most important issue is security, not economy,” Mr. Yi explained.

He said some North Korean officials “sometimes agree” that nuclear weapons will not solve the country’s severe economic problems and that Pyongyang will have to reconcile with the United States.

Although Mr. Bush has said a formal treaty is out of the question, he said this week that written security assurances could be made if they were backed by Russia, China, Japan and South Korea.

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