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North, South Korean Red Cross chapters begin talks about food aid

May 3, 1997

BEIJING (AP) _ With North Korea only weeks from widespread famine, Red Cross officials from North and South Korea opened discussions today on emergency food aid _ their first direct talks in nearly five years.

The rare meeting in neutral Beijing between Red Cross officials from avowedly enemy nations was an indication of the desperation inside communist North Korea and fears of its consequences in capitalist South Korea.

``The situation over the last two months has gone from alarming to desperate,″ said Ole Gronning, who supervises the international Red Cross’s relief effort in Pyongyang.

Warehouses are empty, and the government has stopped distributing even the meager emergency rations it had been giving out, Gronning said.

Gronning visited hundreds of families in tours of the countryside, their kitchens empty except for bowls of grasses and roots.

He renewed an appeal for large-scale food relief to avoid ``massive starvation″ from June to August before the grain harvest begins. The U.N.’s World Food Program estimates that $95.5 million is needed to feed 4.7 million people _ about a fifth of the population.

Flooding wiped out much of the last two years of harvests and pushed North Korea’s economy _ already weakened by bad planning and the loss of its Soviet Bloc trade partners _ into ruin.

The collapse forced Pyongyang, whose official ideology preaches self-reliance, to accept aid from overseas.

North Korean Red Cross secretary general Paik Yong Ho exchanged a friendly handshake across the negotiating table with Lee Byung-woong, his South Korean counterpart, at the start of the talks at a plush Beijing hotel.

The North Koreans had previously refused to discuss an agenda for talks, which could last through Monday, so negotiators will first have to set one, South Korean and Red Cross officials said.

Food deliveries to the 139,000 North Koreans the Red Cross is already caring for will be discussed and negotiators may look into feeding even more people, said Lasse Norgaard, a spokesman for the Red Cross’ international federation.

South Korean Embassy spokesman Chang Moon-ik said the South Korean Red Cross is prepared to deliver grain to the North, but details of the transfer need to be worked out.

Both the North Korean and South Korean Red Cross chapters are closely allied with their governments. Meetings between the two have fallen prey to political tensions between Pyongyang and Seoul.

Seoul has held out the prospect of more aid if Pyongyang enters into peace talks to formally end the state of hostilities from their 1950-53 war.

North Korea has refused to talk directly with the South Korean government, which it views as a puppet of the United States. Last month it backed away from a proposal for talks, to be mediated by the United States and China, unless large-scale aid shipments begin first.

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