North Korea's Extremity

Getting food aid to North Korea is a little like trying to help a trapped animal. The help is needed, but the victim is likely to see the helper as an enemy.

North Korea's extremity is becoming ever clearer. But the country's leaders have been leery of large-scale aid, worried about the image of failure that could accompany it.

That could be changing, as the need grows and the flow of food becomes better organized. Both the United States and South Korea have made initial aid pledges in response to an appeal by the United Nation's World Food Program for 203,000 tons of food. Some South Korean corn is on its way over the Chinese border into North Korea - a hopeful sign, given the North's particular aversion to getting help from the South.

Also encouraging are reports the North will agree to join talks this year with South Korea, the US, and China aimed at resolving the Korean peninsula's 1953 truce into a formal peace agreement. Any movement on that front will help free up famine relief.

But deep problems remain. Even as aid arrives, North Korea's code of secrecy interferes with efforts to make sure the aid gets where it's most needed. Fuel supplies are virtually exhausted in the North, which further complicates distribution. And Pyongyang has no foreign exchange, making outright purchase of food impossible. It can barter commodities like minerals for food, but it backed out of one such deal with the American grain shipper, Cargill.

Meanwhile, the food crisis is deepening. Andrew Natsios, vice president of the World Vision relief agency and someone with wide experience in aiding famine victims, recently returned from a tour of North Korea and reported signs of imminent, widespread starvation. Children showed evidence of malnutrition, farm animals were scarce (assumed slaughtered for food), and elderly people were nowhere in sight. The latter, he was told, were staying indoors, conserving energy and eating little so that other family members would have more. Many people were seen scavenging for roots and wild plants.

Some in Seoul and Washington may ask why the world should do anything to aid a benighted and dangerous government like North Korea's. But it's not the government that's being aided with food. It's the North Korean people - who, despite more than four decades of enforced isolation, must sense the failings of the tyranny they've endured. Helping them now is a matter of moral imperative.

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