- The Washington Times - Monday, February 4, 2008

SEOUL (AP) — North Korea is facing its worst food shortage in years but has not yet issued the usual appeal for help from its rich southern neighbor.

Most experts suspect the reason for Pyongyang’s silence lies in the election of a new South Korean president, conservative Lee Myung-bak, who wants concessions from North Korea in exchange for aid.

Mr. Lee’s Grand National Party has argued that South Korea’s previous two presidents gave too much unconditional aid to buy reconciliation with the North. The party was a regular target of North Korean criticism. Now Pyongyang finds itself having to work with someone whom it dubbed a “philistine” and “traitor.”

That makes it hard for the regime to make the opening pitch for aid “because that could be seen as an expression of its weakness,” said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at Seoul’s University of North Korean Studies.

In a newspaper interview published over the weekend, Mr. Lee also raised the possibility of canceling aid projects promised to North Korea by his liberal predecessor if they fail to make economic sense and are not in line with the communist country’s nuclear disarmament.

During a summit in October, outgoing President Roh Moo-hyun and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il agreed on a number of projects, including building a new joint economic zone, a shipbuilding factory and road and rail improvements in the reclusive country.

“Even if they are agreed-upon projects, we need to take into consideration progress in the North Korean nuclear issue and see if they are economically feasible,” Mr. Lee told South Korea’s Dong-a Ilbo newspaper.

“We also have to see whether we are financially capable and if [the projects] are worth it. … There should also be national consensus. Just because politicians went there and signed them does not mean we have to do that,” Mr. Lee said.

The World Food Program predicts that North Korea will fall about 1.4 million tons short of its food needs this year because of flooding triggered by the heaviest rainfall in 40 years. The floods, which left about 600 people dead or missing, also destroyed more than 11 percent of the country’s crops, according to North Korea’s state media.

Past crop failures have led to famine, and North Korea usually makes its requests for fertilizer aid between mid-January and mid-February for the spring planting season in March. South Korea typically provides 20 percent to 30 percent of it — between 200,000 and 500,000 tons.

In the past, Seoul rejected those demands only once, when tensions over North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs led to a temporary suspension of deliveries. The fertilizer aid, along with rice, has become a fixture in North Korea’s agricultural planning, analysts say.

It “may not look big, but its absence can considerably affect the North’s economy,” said Kim Yong-hyun, a professor at Seoul’s Dongguk University.

Mr. Kim expects Pyongyang to wait as long as it can before asking for fertilizer and to do so through an unofficial channel.

“For the North, the issue of fertilizer aid will be the first negotiation project with the incoming government,” Mr. Kim said. “It cannot but take a cautious approach.”

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