A North Korea that for decades posed before the world as the realization of paradise on earth has again been forced to admit it desperately needs food for its 23 million people and must appeal for international help. The United States is among those ready to lend a hand, with President Clinton approving the export of up to 500,000 metric tons of wheat and rice to its old enemy. But Pyongyang’s negotiations on a barter deal with the big U.S. grain firm Cargill Inc. have not been easy. North Korea has refused to participate in talks with the United States, South Korea and China on reaching a permanent peace on the Korean peninsula until a deal is set.
North Korea’s economy has shrunk by as much as 30% since 1990; two years of severe flooding have left a half-million people homeless and destroyed roads, mines, rice fields and livestock, pushing the nation still closer to collapse. But the potential implosion of the last Stalinist state has become a cause for concern rather than satisfaction in Seoul and Washington.
The worry, as Adm. Joseph Prueher, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, put it this week, is that a collapse could produce a reckless lashing out against South Korea--and the 37,000 American troops stationed there. North Korea has hundreds of missile launchers and artillery pieces positioned close to the demilitarized zone that separates it from South Korea. Seoul, home to one-fourth of South Korea’s 45 million people, is within range of these weapons.
So even in a state of acute weakness, Pyongyang retains political leverage. The decision made in Washington and Seoul is to try to keep North Korea at least minimally viable while hoping that events will force it to moderate its harsh domestic and foreign policies. That’s a sound approach, given the alternatives. The question, as always, is whether North Korea’s leaders will go along with such an evolutionary change.