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U.S. Trying to Prevent Tailspin by North Korea


WASHINGTON — The Clinton administration believes that North Korea, beset by an immediate food shortage and longer-term economic woes, may be in the initial stages of a collapse similar in some ways to those that toppled the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe in 1989.

A number of recent signs from North Korea--severe food and energy shortages, a sharp upsurge in defectors, social disorder and seemingly erratic and desperate behavior by the regime--have put Washington on alert to the possibility that the country may be falling apart.

As a result, over the past few months the Clinton administration has for the first time quietly begun to alter American policy to try to make the changes in North Korea more gradual. The aim is to stave off an explosive collapse that could lead to a massive wave of refugees or other upheavals.

"The big question is, 'Is this the beginning of the end for the North Korean regime?' " one administration official said. "We continue to get anecdotal evidence that law and order may be breaking down. We see signs of incoherence in their decision-making."

American officials say that there are no signs of mass starvation, of the sort seen in Somalia or Ethiopia, and that there is clearly still food in stockpiles set aside for the country's huge army of 1.2 million. But U.S. officials say the shortages are severe enough to cause malnutrition, particularly in remote areas.

Witnesses in North Korea say the food shortages are only part of the problem. Last week, Trevor Page, director of the U.N. World Food Program's office in the capital, Pyongyang, visited the southwestern port of Haeju, near the demilitarized zone with South Korea, and found that schools had been closed for the month of January because of a lack of heat and electricity.

"The kids are really freezing in the province that is usually the most prosperous in North Korea," Page said in a telephone interview. He added, "On four separate main street corners there was also no traffic, only bicycles and oxcarts."

Even the optimistic U.S. scenarios for North Korea now have relatively short time frames.

"It's not likely to collapse right away, but it's very brittle, very fragile, and if I had to make a guess, I'd say they'd muddle along with the possibility of a collapse in two or three years," said Harvard University professor Ezra Vogel, who served until last summer as the U.S. intelligence community's top analyst for Asia.


With North Korea exhibiting increasing desperation, Clinton administration officials decided in recent meetings to start supplying it with small amounts of food.

The food is portrayed as humanitarian aid, but senior administration officials acknowledge that an upcoming $2-million shipment may be the first step by the United States and its allies in using aid to coax Pyongyang out of its isolation.

The delivery might come after elections are held in April in South Korea, where food aid for Pyongyang is politically sensitive. South Korean President Kim Young Sam was humiliated last summer when he agreed to supply rice to Pyongyang and then the ship providing it was seized on spying charges at a North Korean port.

"No one's talking about a Marshall Plan," said Stanley Roth of the U.S. Institute of Peace, referring to the United States' economic recovery plan for Europe after World War II. "We're not saving them [the North Korean leaders]. We're trying to stave off an imminent collapse because this 'softer hard landing' is in our own interest. . . . What people are talking about is to stretch it out, avoid starvation, avoid refugee flows."

Roth, who just stepped down as director of Asian affairs for the National Security Council, noted that Pentagon officials have become concerned that North Korea's growing desperation could prompt it to take military action now, before its economic plight makes the army a "withering resource."

Despite the potential stakes, the decision to provide even small amounts of food aid has touched off debate about how the food should be distributed and under what conditions.

Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) said last month that economic help should be conditioned on Pyongyang's willingness to reduce its armed forces and limit deployments along the demilitarized zone with South Korea.

Others say the United States should insist on having Americans hand out the food supplies--particularly to make sure they don't end up in military stockpiles.

"The best example for this was the [Herbert] Hoover mission to the Soviet Union in the 1930s, where the United States went in on the condition that Americans would control the distribution of food, and Stalin agreed," said James R. Lilley, a former U.S. ambassador to South Korea.


The root cause of North Korea's economic problems is that over the past five years it has lost the large-scale help it was getting from two longtime patrons, the Soviet Union and China.

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