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Korea Weighs Offer of New Peace Talks

Prague, June 12 (RFE/RL) -- South Korea and the United States have together pledged nine million dollars to help ease severe food shortages in North Korea. The Japanese government is expected to meet Friday to formally approve its own six-million-dollar donation.

But will Pyongyang bite the hands that feed it? That's what South Korean, American and Japanese officials may wonder this week as they gather in New York for talks expected to discuss ways to encourage North Korea to enter four-way peace talks.

Pyongyang will only say that it is studying the proposal, which would involve the north and south sitting down for talks to negotiate a peace treaty. Washington and Beijing would take part as mediators.

North Korea's acceptance would mark a major change in Pyongyang's policy toward South Korea. Analysts are expressing cautious optimism because the north hasn't automatically rejected the overture. Technically, the Korean peninsula is still in a state of war, since no peace treaty was signed at the end of the 1950-53 Korean War.

South Korea had previously banned all food aid to the north, believing that the communist government there was exaggerating the shortages to get more outside aid.

The United Nations and the International Red Cross disagree. They say last year's floods were the worst in 100 years and wiped out at least 20 percent of North Korea's arable land, a devastating figure considering 80 percent of the country is mountainous. The floods also killed livestock and destroyed roads, bridges and irrigation systems.

Aid agencies say some 20 million North Koreans are suffering, with many peasant families reportedly eating grass, roots and leaves to supplement food distributed by the government.

Douglas Casson of the U.N. World Food Program says rations distributed by the government in Pyongyang have been cut to 230 grams a day for most people, less than half the amount needed by an average adult. Many of the 100 North Koreans who have defected to the south in the past two years also have complained of widespread hunger.

South Korea's three-million-dollar donation -- as well as the contributions by the U.S. and Japan -- was in response to a new United Nations appeal for 43 million dollars in emergency food aid. U.N. officials say the contributions will be used for relief efforts through next March.

The U.N. appeal seeks 27 million dollars for emergency food supplies, 10 million dollars for the recovery of farm land buried under sand or gravel or eroded as a result of the flooding, and six million dollars for emergency health services.

Seoul's deputy prime minister, Kwon O-Kie, said the three million dollars in aid pledged yesterday is a symbolic amount and will partly consist of milk powder and food for infants and children. That is an apparent response to hard-liners in Seoul, who fear aid will be used to help feed the one million members of Pyongyang's armed forces.

Kwon said: "The aid will remain at a symbolic level, and any large-scale assistance can be discussed on the basis of new confidence-building measures after North Korea accepts four-way peace talks."

The Associated Press today quotes officials in Seoul as saying that the South Korean government may propose forming a consortium made up of South Korea, the United States, Japan and China to help the north solve its food crisis.

The Yonhap news agency today quotes South Korean legislator Lee Sang-Deuk as saying that "Seoul needs to take a more active approach to providing food from a humanitarian viewpoint."
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    Grant Podelco

    Grant Podelco is the editor in chief of RFE/RL's English-language website. He first joined RFE/RL in Prague in 1995 as a senior correspondent after working for many years as a writer and editor for daily newspapers in New York, Oregon, and Texas. He reported from Afghanistan in November 2002 to mark the one-year anniversary of the fall of the Taliban.