TOKYO — This was the week the world got serious about the possibility of a North Korean famine.
An unusual degree of openness from North Korean officials, strident appeals from United Nations officials, and the eyewitness reports of an Ohio congressman who toured the country last weekend are prompting unprecedented international concern over food shortages in the isolated communist nation.
North Korea has been running low on food for years because of an inefficient, state-run agricultural system, and recent years of heavy flooding have made a bad situation worse. Its appeals for help have been muted, since the country is founded on an ideology of self-reliance. The North is also a closed country, so journalists haven't been able to document the impact of the shortages.
"It's finally happening," says Patrick McCormick, a Geneva-based UNICEF spokesman, referring to efforts to provide the country with aid. "Hopefully we can head off a serious disaster."
The sense of hope goes beyond the humanitarian crisis. Officials and analysts believe that North Korea's need for outside help may encourage the country to participate in four-party peace talks with China, South Korea, and the United States.
Defense Secretary William Cohen, visiting Japan and South Korea this week, says "the evidence is mounting that [the food shortage] appears to be very severe."
"Hopefully," he adds, "it will allow us to [go ahead] with the four-party talks." North Korea is expected to tell Washington and Seoul April 16 whether it will agree to the talks.
North and South Korea technically remain at war, since the 1950-1953 Korean conflict ended with an armistice, not a treaty. The two countries are the last of the cold war's divided nations, and the border between them is the most heavily militarized in the world.
On April 7, UN officials announced they would need $126 million to avert a famine, including $95 million for emergency food supplies. The next day, North Korean officials in Pyongyang told aid agencies that 134 children had died of malnutrition in 1996, and a North Korean delegation arrived in Hanoi, in part to ask for Vietnamese assistance. The UN's World Food Program says 2.3 million metric tons of food aid is needed.
Also on April 8, Rep. Tony Hall (D) of Ohio, reported on his recent tour of the country, saying, "There's a lot wrong about North Korea, but the fact is they're in trouble and they need help." He described unannounced visits to private homes where people were subsisting on a single bowl of rice-and-corn gruel a day and foraging for edible greens such as grass or clover.
Government analysts in Washington, Tokyo, and Seoul have had suspicions about the extent of the food shortages and the distribution of aid, worrying that North Korea was keeping its military and political elite reasonably well fed while civilians starved. These governments estimate that North Korea spends $6 billion a year on its military, a force that threatens South Korea and some 37,000 US troops stationed there.
But Mr. Hall said he saw no evidence of such disparities. "You look at the soldiers and their uniforms don't fit. Everybody is systematically starving together."
As if in response, a consortium of South Korean religious and civic groups announced - also on April 8 - a plan to raise about $20 million to ship 110,000 metric tons of corn to the North.
Later in the week, the US and South Korea both said they were considering increasing the amount of aid they offered earlier this year. Japan is holding off for now, even though it sent 500,000 metric tons of rice to the country in 1995, because it is investigating longstanding reports that North Korea abducted Japanese citizens in the 1970s. Washington is already sending $10 million worth of aid - some 27,000 metric tons of food, and Seoul has promised $6 million.
"People are realizing there is a famine," says Andrew Natsios, vice president of World Vision, an international charity. "People are going to realize that [North Koreans] are going to die in large numbers unless we do something," he adds. Like UNICEF's Mr. McCormick, he warned that because there is little or no food currently "in the pipeline" to the North, there is a risk of food aid reaching the country too late.
Scott Snyder, an expert on North Korea at the US Institute of Peace in Washington, cautions that growing famine could undermine the success of the four-party talks, even if North Korea decides to participate. "There is a possibility that North Korea could find itself too weak for negotiations," he says. "If they are completely focused on one issue, the question is how can you get past it to discuss the real and substantial agenda on a lasting peace?"
* Staff writer Jonathan S. Landay contributed to this report from Washington.