Wednesday, May 14, 2008

North Korean papers in exchange for food?

Despite the volume of papers given to Sung Kim, a US State Department expert on Korea, analysts doubt if the documents address vital US questions. Still, analysts say, the hand-over marks a concrete step forward that could open the way to further progress, driven in part by North Korea's desperation over looming threats of famine and disease.

Analysts say the country's economic problems and food shortage are approaching the widespread famine and suffering of the 1990s. The US is reportedly prepared to send North Korea 500,000 tons of foodstuffs as US technicians monitor disablement of the Yongbyon complex amid reports that the North may blow up the reactor's cooling tower as symbolic evidence that it's making good on its promise to give up the entire program.

Kim Tae Woo suggest "the situation may push the US to move forward" on getting the congressional approval needed to remove North Korea from the list of nations sponsoring terrorism and to lift economic sanctions.

Those steps are crucial as North Korea faces renewed threats of famine and disease. Pyongyang's Korean Central News Agency, reminding readers of "Dear Leader" Kim Jong Il's call for an "agricultural revolution," has editorialized that the need "to drastically increase grain production" and "resolve the problem of eating" is the country's "most pressing and important issue."

Conversations with North Koreans crossing the Tumen River border into China bear out the urgency of the food problem. "The situation is extremely dire," says Tim Peters, founder of Helping Hands Korea, which aids North Korean refugees. "The poor harvest and poor weather are the worst in 13 to 14 years."

Mr. Peters, reached by phone as he met North Koreans on the Chinese side of the Tumen River, gets the impression that persecution may have eased as the crisis deepens. "People are more vocal about their feelings," he says. "They seem less fearful about talking."

An influx of aid from the US and South Korea, on top of aid the North receives from China, "could be a big help," he adds, "but my question is, how far will it filter down to the little people?"

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