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NATIONAL PERSPECTIVE | INTERNATIONAL OUTLOOK

U.S., China Are Awkward Aid Partners for N. Korea

September 10, 1997|JIM MANN

WASHINGTON — There are two little secrets about North Korea's food crisis that the Clinton administration would prefer you didn't know.

The first is that China, it appears, is quietly helping to feed the North Korean military--that is, the same million-man army that the administration says continues to threaten South Korea and the 37,000 U.S. troops stationed there.

"Frankly, the [North Korean] army is getting what it needs from China," acknowledged a United Nations official. "China's role is to make sure the army doesn't collapse and therefore the country doesn't collapse."

The second secret is that the United States is now beginning to consider a massive extension of the aid program funneling food to North Korea.

At the moment, international relief efforts are feeding those North Koreans who are most endangered by famine--slightly less than a quarter of the country's civilians. But aid officials are beginning to talk about a "general distribution" next year under which relief supplies from overseas would feed North Korea's entire population, more than 20 million people.

If it comes to pass, this bizarre result--a country whose army is sustained by one large neighbor and whose people are fed by the rest of the world--would be testament to North Korea's remarkable talent in winning handouts.

"The North Koreans may be the most skillful in the universe at picking big powers' pockets," observed Nicholas Eberstadt, a North Korea specialist at the American Enterprise Institute.

Over the last year or two, China has begun to steer aid into North Korea to the point where a senior Clinton administration official says that the Chinese have become the country's leading source of food.

Recent studies show that the Chinese food supplies amount to as much as 1 million tons a year. By contrast, the United States, the largest single donor to the World Food Program's international relief effort, has given much less, about 200,000 tons, to North Korea over the last two years.

China does not say, of course, that its aid sustains the North Korean army. But it also does not restrict its food to civilians in the way that international relief agencies do.

Looked at strictly from China's point of view, feeding the North Korean army is a reasonable endeavor. Although China has forged ever-closer ties with South Korea, it also does not want North Korea to disintegrate, any more than the United States wants upheavals in Mexico.

For the Clinton administration, however, China's help for the North Korean army is awkward in several ways.

The unpleasant reality is that North Korea has not pulled its troops back from the demilitarized zone separating it from South Korea or cut back on the size of its military. In other contexts, such as the recent debate about banning land mines, the Pentagon points out the danger that the North Korean army might still invade the South. And yet Chinese food is helping to maintain this supposedly menacing army.

Furthermore, North Korea regularly has been used by the Clinton administration as example No. 1 in its argument that the United States and China can work together in Asia and share similar strategic interests. But Beijing's help in feeding the North Korean army shows how superficial and limited this argument really is.

It's true that the United States and China both wanted to stop North Korea from developing nuclear weapons. But beyond that, U.S. and Chinese interests begin to diverge. China does not want North Korea to collapse, and see across its border a reunified Korea, allied with the United States in the way that South Korea now is.

China also does not want to bear by itself the expense of keeping North Korea afloat over a long period of time. "They're helping with the army, and that's as far as they'll go," says one relief official. That's where the United States comes in.

Over the last two years, Washington has contributed about 35% of the costs of the World Food Program's food relief efforts in North Korea. For now, this food is distributed to 2.6 million children, 1 million patients at hospitals and other institutions and 1.1 million North Koreans in hard-hit farm areas: in all, about 4.7 million people.

It isn't enough. Early indications are that this year's North Korean harvest will be another disaster and that the famine will spread. Relief officials are already talking about the need to feed the whole population of North Korea next year.

Such an effort would raise all sorts of problems. To distribute food throughout North Korea, you need fuel for trucks. But the Pentagon, understandably, isn't too pleased about the idea that international relief officials might bring in fuel that could be diverted to help the North Korean army.

The underlying problem is that North Korea, in the midst of its famine, continues to maintain a huge military and deploy it in a menacing way. It is hard to see how the Clinton administration will be able to persuade Congress to help feed an entire country whose army still threatens American troops.

The status quo in North Korea is absurd. Something is bound to change.

Jim Mann's column appears in this space every other Wednesday.

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