Hoping to entice North Korea to open a dialogue for peace, South Korea is dangling the possibility of more food aid to its hungry adversary.
If Pyongyang wants food aid, Seoul says, it ought to agree to four-party peace talks proposed in April. The South Korean government acknowledges that although it appears harsh to use humanitarian aid for political ends, it is impossible to act otherwise because of the North's past behavior.
South Koreans say that when they were more warmhearted, Pyongyang gave them a thankless reception. Last summer a ship delivering rice was seized, another forced to raise the North Korean flag, and a crew member accused of spying. The 150,000 tons of free rice Pyongyang demanded had to come in bags without South Korean labels on them. Moreover, the North refused to deal with the Seoul government.
Last summer's fiasco made giving food aid to an uncooperative North very unpopular - and voters punished South Korea's ruling party in elections last June. The ruling party is not likely to make the same mistake again.
But even as inter-Korean relations have been marked by decades of mistrust, some analysts say, withholding aid could be unproductive for Seoul. South Korea controls private and business contacts with the North and pressures its allies not to give aid or to give humanitarian food relief unconditionally.
If Seoul did so, "Does this in fact [mean it] capitulates to the North? No," says Robert Galluci, the US diplomat, who negotiated with North Korea in October 1994 to drop its nuclear bomb program for an American promise to help build light-water civilian reactors.
Seoul's policy of linking food aid to concessions, rewarding North Korea when it is good and punishing it when it is bad, may not be effective. Lee Dong Bok, a former veteran negotiator with the North who is now a member of South Korea's parliament, says the policy is misguided.
The North's "ideological constraints" won't be overcome easily, Mr. Lee says. At the same time, he acknowledges, handing over aid with no strings attached is not realistic: North Korea's food shortage is due to Communist central planning. Floods aside, the shortage has been getting worse for years. North Korea fell nearly 2 million tons short of the 6 million tons of crops needed to feed the country this year. Unless its failed agricultural policy can be addressed, no country would be willing to hand out such quantities annually, Lee says: "It's like throwing food to the sea."
But the UN World Food Programme (WFP) says that until September, someone should help feed North Korea. Daily per capita food consumption has dropped from 600 grams last year to 300 to 250 grams this year, and the "situation has deteriorated more seriously than expected," according to a WFP report.
Japan, the US, and South Korea, donors in the past, compared notes in a meeting three weeks ago. The three countries agreed that the situation is bad but not yet a crisis. The US prefers not to link humanitarian aid with peace talks.
Meanwhile, the South Korean government says the ball is in North Korea's court. Pyongyang must decide which is worse: continuing its policy of self-reliance while its people are forced to eat roots and grasses, or accepting food aid and joining four-party talks with South Korea.
"The North Korean government is in the best position to determine the seriousness of the food problem," says one official in Seoul's Unification Ministry. "If the food situation is so serious, then there's no reason for them to reject North-South dialogue."
American and South Korean officials prefer not to say they are "withholding humanitarian aid" but that they are watching the situation carefully and that no aid seems appropriate now.
No official will say when Seoul plans to give food unconditionally in order to prevent armed conflict or a flow of refugees if the situation deteriorates. But the outside world knows little about North Korea, much less about the current state of the food shortages. Aid groups and nations each have their own interpretations, and North Korea is wary about letting foreigners inspect its land.