WASHINGTON -- North Korea, which two years ago extracted billions of dollars worth of concessions from the West as the price for halting a nuclear weapons program, is now having to ask the world for food.
It is nearly impossible to know for certain what is happening in North Korea, a Stalinist hermit kingdom with a million-man army that keeps the Korean peninsula on constant alert. But the United Nations is convinced that a half-million people there are severely malnourished and that without international aid the country will run out of food this summer.
The Clinton administration has taken the reports seriously enough to announce $2 million in aid, even at the risk of criticism from South Korea and its Republican allies on Capitol Hill.
North Korea's humbling transformation from open belligerency to desperate neediness has occurred in part because of a natural disaster, the catastrophic flooding last July and August in a prime food-producing region, Hwanghae. But the floods just exacerbated a chronic North Korean food shortage. Each year, the country falls 1 million to 3 million tons short of the rice it needs.
"There was a long-term structural problem, but the floods made that situation much, much worse," said Michael Ross, a spokesman for the World Food Program, the U.N. agency that has led the aid effort.
Only 20 percent of North Korea's landscape is suitable for farming. The regime tried to boost output with major irrigation projects. But it maintained its Communist system of collective farms, refusing to follow China's example of increasing farmers' incentives to produce more, according to Selig S. Harrison, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
During the Cold War, North Korea could rely on its patron, the former Soviet Union, for steady supplies of cheap oil, which it used to power tractors and produce fertilizer. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, these subsidized imports stopped.
China, another longtime ally, recently halted its own food exports to North Korea, as China struggles to feed its own growing, and increasingly affluent, population. "For North Korea," said Mr. Harrison, "this was a tremendous blow."
According to some reports, North Korea's elaborate public rationing system allows people only one meal a day. A defector was quoted last month as saying that hunger had even caused unrest in the army.
North Korea's appeal for help from the United Nations was a strikingly untypical move for that willfully isolated country, one that has prided itself on its self-reliance since 1953, when a cease-fire ended the Korean War. The West is uncertain as to who is really in charge. Kim Il Jong, son of late ruler Kim Il Sung, is described as the top leader, but he has yet to assume some of his father's titles.
North Korea apparently preferred to ask for aid from the West than from its neighbor and enemy, South Korea, which has demanded that in exchange for food the North hold formal talks with it. South Korea sent 150,000 tons of rice last year.
"We will ask them to stop slandering our president and our country and change their hostile attitude," a South Korean official said last week. Recent North Korean movement of aircraft and heavy artillery closer to the demilitarized zone stiffened the south's attitude.
Ever since North Korea triggered a nuclear crisis in 1993, the United States has tried to coordinate policy with its ally in the south. As a result, even though the State Department and the Agency for International Development wanted to help relieve the North Korean food crisis, the White House held off on a decision until last week.
"The administration has had a very protracted debate because of concern about the reaction of South Korea," said Mr. Harrison. The $2 million aid package is "politically significant," he said, because it shows that the United States is "not going to be hostage to South Korea."
Administration officials said they didn't expect South Korea to object strongly, but a top Clinton aide -- National Security Adviser Anthony Lake -- was en route to Seoul for talks with
South Korean officials when the announcement was made.
North Korea wants to expand ties with the United States and offer South Korea as little recognition as possible.
Seoul, for its part, wants to increase its influence on North Korea by being both its link with the West and its main source of aid.
As part of the agreement that persuaded North Korea to freeze its nuclear program, Seoul is to furnish the technology and much of the personnel and money to build light-water reactors in the north.