Future of North Korea May Become Clinton's Biggest Foreign Policy Test

John M. Deutch, the outgoing CIA director, made a startlingly frank prediction a couple of weeks ago about the future of North Korea. By doing so, he called attention to what could well become the biggest foreign policy test President Clinton will face in his second term.

Testifying before the Senate Intelligence Committee, Deutch warned that within the next few years, North Korea will change in one of three ways: It will go to war, collapse or decide to reunify with South Korea.

"Either it is going to invade the South over one issue or another," the CIA director forecast, "or it will break up, or it will collapse internally or implode because of the incredible economic problems that the country faces. Or third, it will over time lead to some peaceful resolution and a reunification with the South."

This may seem like a wide range of possible outcomes. But Deutch's list is noteworthy for what it leaves out. Nowhere on it is the possibility that the status quo--the Cold War between North and South Korea that has endured for more than four decades--will hold.

In other words, the CIA director was saying that North Korea can't survive in its current form. Something has to give, and soon. Deutch said he believes the North Korea question "will be resolved within the next two or three years."

Underlying Deutch's testimony is a series of reports that North Korea's food shortages, which were serious last winter, have, over the past few months, worsened.

U.S. officials say that signs of malnutrition have been showing up in new segments of North Korean society, including military units and mid-level bureaucrats. Recent photographs taken by visitors to North Korea have been compared with those of the same people taken a year or two ago. The North Koreans in the pictures often show a pronounced drop in body weight.

Factories are said to be running at 10% to 20% of capacity now, both because of energy shortages and because of the poor health of workers. Relief experts report that some trucks are running on crude engines that use charcoal for fuel.

The United Nations' World Food Program, which has staff surveying crop outputs in North Korea, recently concluded that the country "approaches 1997 in a far worse position than 1996 and will again depend heavily on large-scale international assistance to meet minimum food requirements."

One cold statistic from the WFP tells the food story: Last summer, during the lean season as North Korea waited for a new harvest, the regime cut the daily food rations to 200 grams of grain per person.

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That is the equivalent of one bowl of rice per day. After the harvest, the daily ration was raised to 450 grams in an effort to try to overcome growing malnutrition. But WFP officials say that in recent weeks, the ration has dropped to 200 grams again.

"There is a substantial chance that there will be a famine there [in North Korea] this year, and people will die, but few people will know because no one will be there to take pictures of it," says Andrew Natsios, a food relief specialist who headed U.S. disaster relief operations during the Bush administration. "Generally speaking, the second year of a famine is the one where people die. It was the second year [when deaths occurred] in Ethiopia."

North Korea's increasingly severe food shortages create a series of awkward policy dilemmas for the Clinton administration.

On the one hand, North Korea remains an implacable adversary of the United States and its ally South Korea. North Korea still has one of the biggest armies in Asia: more than 1 million troops, most of them deployed near the demilitarized zone between the North and South. When it comes to countries that can't afford the money they are spending on their military, North Korea must set a record.

On the other hand, no one is in favor of starvation. And administration officials worry about the consequences of a collapse, which could send hundreds of thousands, even millions, of North Korean refugees streaming across borders to China and South Korea and even by boat to Japan.

At the moment, there appear to be three schools of thought in Washington about U.S. policy toward North Korea. Let's call these three schools the Hawks, the Doves and the Hummingbirds.

The Hummingbirds don't believe Deutch's dire predictions. They think North Korea is still strong enough to survive without far-reaching changes. For one thing, say some Hummingbirds, China--which recently sent some food to North Korea--simply won't let the Pyongyang regime collapse.

The Hummingbirds are a curious amalgamation of the political left and right. Those on the left are sympathetic to the North Korean regime, or believe U.S. intelligence agencies may be exaggerating Pyongyang's problems as psychological warfare against the North. Those on the political right suspect North Korea may be making things sound worse than they are in order to get foreign aid.

By contrast, both the Hawks and the Doves believe that North Korea's woes are every bit as serious as Deutch testified. But the Hawks and Doves differ on what the United States ought to do about the situation.

The Hawks argue that the United States and its allies shouldn't bail out North Korea. If the North Korean regime is going to collapse with a "hard landing," they say, then good riddance. If there are refugee problems, we can deal with them. The Hawks believe that the sooner the process of reunifying the two Koreas is started, the easier and less expensive it will be.

The Hawks have their strongest constituency among Republicans on Capitol Hill. Their views were given voice during the 1996 campaign by Bob Dole. When the administration approved $6 million in food aid to North Korea in June, Dole thundered that "President Clinton has decided to subsidize a country that devotes its own resources to the appetite of an insatiable military."

The Doves believe in trying to arrange a "soft landing" for North Korea--that is, to prevent a sudden collapse. They worry that North Korea might become desperate enough to launch a war that would jeopardize the 37,000 U.S. troops in South Korea. They believe an outflow of North Korean refugees could have untold consequences for South Korea, China and Japan.

Generally, the Clinton administration sides with the Doves. It favors a soft landing in which North Korea is gradually provided food and other benefits as an inducement for modifying its threatening behavior. Pushing North Korea to the edge would be "a very, very risky strategy," one senior administration official observed last week.

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But the administration is proceeding very cautiously, even surreptitiously. It is quietly working toward providing new food supplies to North Korea while all the while insisting that this aid is not a reward or payoff to Pyongyang.

When Rep. Bill Richardson (D-N.M.), Clinton's nominee to be America's next U.N. ambassador, visited Pyongyang last month, he is said to have offered North Korea a complex package that included new U.S. food aid.

Under this secret deal, North Korea was supposed to apologize for its dispatch of a submarine into South Korean waters in September. On Sunday, North Korea apparently complied with this requirement by expressing "deep regret." It also has reportedly agreed to participate in a "briefing" with South Korean officials about the possibility of four-way peace talks with China and the United States.

In addition, both Pyongyang and Seoul are to take new steps to carry out the 2-year-old agreement aimed at freezing North Korea's nuclear program. Finally, the United States is supposed to open the way for about $6 million in new food aid to North Korea.

The administration hasn't acknowledged this package deal, nor has it yet announced any new food supplies. Apparently, the administration was hoping to let North Korea make its apology for the submarine and then let some time pass before offering the food. That way, U.S. officials can claim there's no link or trade-off between U.S. food and North Korean political concessions.

Even with this new U.S. aid, North Korea still wouldn't have enough to feed its population. And its long-term prospects wouldn't improve at all. Getting food relief this year won't help feed the country next year.

Eventually, Washington's Hawks and Doves on North Korea policy may work out a compromise: The United States could provide further aid, but only with some tough conditions attached, like a North Korean pullback from the DMZ.

It doesn't make sense over the long run to prop up a regime whose army is threatening to attack your own forces. At some point soon, the United States is going to have to move from food relief to longer-term policies for North Korea. If Deutch is right, the time is getting short.

The International Outlook column appears here every other Monday.

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