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A series of joint ventures announced last week by South Korean conglomerates into communist North Korea stood in marked contrast to the two countries' military face-off a month ago.
Since North Korea violated the 1953 truce agreement in April with three troop incursions into the demilitarized zone that separates the two countries, South Korea and its allies have been looking for ways to reduce tensions in Pacific Asia while inducing North Korea to cool its military heels.
One part of that effort is to infect the communist regime with a dose of capitalism, much as the West forged an opening with China through economic ties. So the South Korean government for the first time gave approval to three conglomerates-Daewoo, Samsung, and Taechang-for joint venture investments in North Korea worth nearly $30 million.
At the same time North Korea announced an agreement with Taiwan to open a tourist office in Taipei. It will offer the equivalent of visas to cash-flush Taiwanese and is expected in the next year to double the number of businessmen and tourists visiting Pyongyang. Taiwan does not have diplomatic ties with North Korea.
Meanwhile, Pentagon officials announced they would employ a higher level of surveillance at the DMZ. Spokesmen, however, would neither confirm nor deny an increase in troop levels.
All this is part of a carrot-and-stick approach designed in part to push Pyongyang into four-way peace talks-with the United States, South Korea, and China-on a peace agreement for the Korean Peninsula.
If the strategy appears to be mostly carrot, the few Americans who have been allowed into North Korea argue that conditions in the country call for butter before guns in spite of Pyongyang's aggression at the border. More than five million North Koreans have been affected by food shortages attributable to record flooding in North Korea last summer.
Stephen Linton, a research associate at Columbia University's Center for Korean Research, has made 10 trips to Pyongyang in the past five years. He heads the Food for Life Program of the Eugene Bell Centennial Foundation and traveled to North Korea this spring as part of a team put together by World Vision to assess the food situation. While access to the area of hardship was limited by government officials, he said evidence of desperation was plentiful. Gaunt families walked country roadsides. Farmers were seen sowing crops on steep slopes, on the banks of river dikes despite the likelihood of more flooding, and even in railroad beds. "They are hoping against hope to get something out of it," Mr. Linton told WORLD.
When Pyongyang's tight-lipped Communist government publicized its food shortage and need for overseas help last year, it was an unprecedented admission. For humanitarian groups who have since been granted access to the country, there is still little about the crisis that resembles others they've faced. The North Koreans in power, Mr. Linton said, "are careful that they not give a bad impression of their country even while they are desperate for food aid." They continue to limit the access of those who've come to help. And without graphic footage of bloated bellies, it's difficult for private relief groups to raise money for the cause.
But relief groups are also having a hard time because the decision to send food to North Korea, which technically has been at war with the United States longer than any other country, has been so controversial. The Clinton administration sent $2 million in food aid to North Korea through the United Nations' World Food Program despite opposition from South Korea. South Korea has been suspicious of Pyongyang's claims of emergency (even though its own Red Cross announced a fourth shipment of food to the North last week).
Mr. Linton would like to see food assistance move from government- to private-based. "Even in issues of diplomacy or international relations, government needs to follow the civilian sector rather than lead it," he said. "We're not seeing this."
Private initiatives, in Mr. Linton's view, would widen the door for Christians to go to work. In spite of the dictatorship in Pyongyang, Mr. Linton said, "I think Christians ought to love their enemies and that means feeding them when they are starving. There is nothing more disarming than taking food to a hardened communist and saying, 'This is food from Christians who don't agree with your politics, whom you hate and probably would decide to destroy. They have no political motives; they've been told by their Savior to love their enemies.'
"If you say it's for your enemies, not only do you desensitize the issue politically, but you blunt whatever attempts people might make to manipulate you."
Critics of food aid to North Korea, however, say government policy cannot be divorced from civilian practice in a state-run country. The Pyongyang government spends 30 percent of its GNP on the military, while asking outsiders for help. According to a U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency report, the Communist government has set aside for military purposes enough fuel to run the economy for one year. Farmers, meanwhile, must plow their fields with horses.
It has also hoarded food and combat rations for its 1 million fighting soldiers "for six months," according to the report, "despite major malnutrition in the North."
The Heritage Foundation's Richard Fisher told WORLD that even the natural disasters are the result of government policies. Government restrictions, particularly on fuel, mean that forests have been denuded and the countryside stripped in the search for fuel. This has exacerbated flooding and led to mudslides that have ruined crops.
"Starving people should not be allowed to starve, but we should be working to convince the North Korean government that it should not be starving its own people, especially when its military machine exists for no other purpose than to conquer the democratic government of the South," Mr. Fisher said.
He has two recommendations for private relief organizations that want to help North Koreans:
Set a plan and follow through with it. This means "eyeball inspection" of the delivery of food to make sure the food has actually fed North Koreans and not gone into "a military larder that could rain death and destruction on South Korea someday."
Seek the full coordination of the U.S. government and South Korea, whose 50 years' experience in dealing with the "murderous environment" created by the North Korean government should not be forgotten. "It would be a tragedy for private organizations to become pawns to be used by Pyongyang in what has been a terrible and emotional experience for the North Korean people."