North Korea's Bitter Choice: Famine Or Foreign Aid

The immediate diplomatic crisis triggered by the defection of Hwang Jang Yop, 74, secretary of the North Korean Workers' Party, is over. Pressured by China and driven by its desperate need for food aid, Pyongyang abruptly lifted its bizarre vigil outside the South Korean Embassy compound in Beijing and decided on Feb. 17 to let Hwang go.

Washington and Seoul are salivating over the inside knowledge they can now glean about the world's most secretive regime. They are keen to keep food and energy aid flowing. And they hope that four-party talks to stabilize the Korean peninsula, where 37,000 U.S. soldiers are based, can begin.

But any expectations for business as usual in the North may be ill-founded. The political and economic situation is worsening by the day. Hwang's defection may widen the split between hardliners and reformers in Pyongyang and could spark purges of the reformers. The North's food crisis also threatens the July 8 inauguration of Kim Jong Il as head of state and Secretary-General of the Workers' Party. Kim is required by custom to provide rice and gifts to the people. If his inauguration is postponed, "there will be a leadership crisis," warns Masao Okonogi, political science professor at Tokyo's Keio University.

Hwang, architect of the North's policy of juche, or extreme self-reliance, was a close adviser to strongman Kim Il Sung, who died in 1994. But Hwang's influence waned as Kim Jong Il took over from his father, strengthened ties with the military, and downplayed the juche ideology. Although he was no longer part of the power elite, Hwang's defection puts reformers, who favor swift diplomatic and economic opening to the West, under a cloud. Many are likely to be marginalized or purged. For their part, hardliners fear that Chinese-style economic reforms, backed by North Korea's reformers, could undermine the regime's authority. If hardliners gain complete control, the North's economic decline will speed up.

Famine is, however, the biggest threat to the regime. Devastating floods in 1995 and 1996 wiped out or badly damaged nearly 1 million acres, or 20%, of the North's farming land, according to the World Food Program (WFP). As a result, the country lacks half the 5.4 million tons of cereal it needs this year. The government has cut rice rations to about half a bowl a day. Edible roots and livestock have become scarce. Even members of the elite are growing thin. People, starting with children, will likely soon begin to die in massive numbers.

GUERRILLA WAR? Promises of food aid are growing, but not fast enough. U.S. and Japanese pledges totaling over $10 million are a sizable slice of WFP's $40 million goal for North Korea. But the country needs 10 times as much, says Stephen Linton, chairman of the Eugene Bell Foundation, which channels aid there.

The political danger will peak in March and April. By then, it will be apparent whether food aid will arrive in time for Kim's inauguration. "[If not,] there's a 60% chance the military could start a guerrilla war in the South," warns Katsumi Sato, president of the Modern Korea Institute in Tokyo.

The North certainly has the capability to mount a terrorist campaign in the South. Before his defection, Hwang had revealed that the North has 50,000 agents in the South, far more than the South had publicly estimated. And on Feb. 15, another prominent defector was shot by suspected North Korean agents in suburban Seoul.

The North's leaders know they need foreign help to stay in power. But they also fear that further opening will lead to chaos and collapse. Hwang's defection has only sharpened their dilemma.

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