North Korea's Extremity

North Korea's deepening food crisis should force that reclusive country into broader contact with the surrounding world. But that logical course of events can easily get derailed in Pyongyang.

Potential donors in Washington and elsewhere hope the promise of increased food aid will help nudge the north's leaders into multinational talks with the US, China, and South Korea. Such talks could open new channels of communication and lead toward a formal peace agreement, ending the Korean peninsula's extended state of suspended conflict.

North Korea's hard-liners, however, loathe the idea of sitting down with their southern cousins. When representatives of the north visited Washington recently, feeling out the four-party talks idea, they wanted to know if it originated with the Americans or the South Koreans. If the latter had anything to do with it, apparently, they wanted nothing to do with it.

This distrust is embedded in the Communist regime's long-running rivalry with the south, which in the last half-decade has taken a sharp turn toward full democracy. That democratic orientation, added to the south's economic vigor, poses an overwhelming challenge to Pyongyang's cultlike Marxism.

Yet the food crisis, bordering on famine, looms. Last year's floods and poor harvest precipitated the crisis, but poor economic management set the stage for it years ago. Fertilizer is in short supply; farming methods are backwards.

Humanitarian concern, by itself, dictates help from abroad - whether or not the north quickly takes up the current offer of peace talks. The United Nations World Food Program is actively engaged, with offices and staff in North Korea. A more extensive, longer-term system of aid is needed, with US involvement a must. It's possible the south, too, will have a large role to play, whether Pyongyang likes that or not.

And it's equally possible that multinational talks may yet give the north the cover it needs to do the inevitable and come out of its shell - sitting down with the south and talking peace.

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