Late last year an expatriate American journalist named Bernard Krisher heard how the United States planned to respond to reports of a food crisis in North Korea: A contribution of $25,000 - less than the cost of, say, a Lexus.
"It made me think that North Korea really has no friends," he says. So Mr. Krisher decided he would be a friend to North Korea, a nation notorious for its xenophobia, a suspicious nuclear-energy program, and an authoritarian, Communist government. It is also a country that the rest of the world has all but forsaken.
Krisher says he hasn't forever left journalism, a career in which he spent decades as a Tokyo-based correspondent for Newsweek and other publications. But "all my life as a journalist I was an observer," he says. "And very often when I was in front of someone [in an interview] ... I would think to myself, 'I could do better.' "
Krisher now devotes much of his time to projects in Cambodia and in North Korea. This year he has delivered to North Korea two shipments of rice and other goods, worth approximately $100,000, and plans a third trip this summer.
He has raised money for aid to North Korea by appealing for help on the Internet through a Web site he created last December. He launched the Internet effort, he says, because "you have a natural calamity where people are not receiving the kind of aid and support that people in other countries would receive under similar circumstances."
To underscore this point, Krisher cites a May 13 report by the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization and the World Food Programme. The report notes that North Korea's capacity to produce enough rice and other grains for its 23 million people was already under strain before floods and other adverse weather worsened the situation in 1994 and 1995.
"As there are no further [food aid] pledges in the pipeline from May onwards," the report says, "the food supply situation is becoming increasingly desperate."
A North Korean official wrote to Krisher, in a letter available on the home page, "[W]e cannot deny that we face a very severe food shortage in the coming months, until this year's harvest, if a large amount of rice is not imported. Our need is only rice."
In the late 1980s, after becoming acquainted with Cambodia's King Norodom Sihanouk, Krisher wanted to do something to help in the reconstruction of that troubled nation. He founded an organization called Japan Relief for Cambodia that encourages individuals and corporations to help the country, usually insisting on donations of goods and services rather than money.
There is some connection between the two countries: King Sihanouk has long had close ties with North Korea's leaders.
Indeed, a South Korean government official cites that connection in suggesting that Krisher "has a personal bias in favor of North Korea." The official says that his government has no objection to Krisher's activities. (See story above.)
Krisher tends to duck questions about the politics of North Korea, preferring to address the humanitarian issues. "I'm finally living out my Walter Mitty, Don Quixote dream of testing out what could be done," he says.