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North, South Korean Red Cross begin talks about food aid

May 3, 1997

BEIJING (AP) _ Red Cross officials from South Korea offered Saturday to begin deliveries of emergency food aid to rival North Korea, where some people are surviving on grass and roots.

South Korean Red Cross chief Lee Byung-woong said he told his counterpart from the North Korean Red Cross, Paik Yong Ho, that the aid needed to be sent ``efficiently and swiftly.″

Their two-hour meeting was the first between Red Cross officials from the enemy nations in nearly five years _ an indication of the desperation inside the communist North and fears of its consequences in the capitalist South.

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

The state of collapse forced North Korea, whose official ideology preaches self-reliance, to accept aid from overseas.

``The situation over the last two months has gone from alarming to desperate,″ Ole Gronning, the international Red Cross who supervises the North Korean relief effort, said in Beijing before the talks.

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

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

``That’s what these people have been eating for weeks,″ he said.

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

Lee, of the South Korean Red Cross, refused to disclose details of the talks. He said both sides proposed methods for delivering and distributing the aid and then adjourned the talks until Monday.

South Korea was insisting on ``efficiently and swiftly″ distributing the aid because that had not been done in the past, Lee said without elaborating.

Both the North 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.

In March, Seoul lifted a ban on private aid donations, funneled through the Red Cross, to North Korea, in recognition of the seriousness of Pyongyang’s food shortage and in response to pressure from the United States.

Seoul _ whose last delivery of direct food aid was in 1995 _ has held out the prospect for more if Pyongyang enters into peace talks to formally end their 1950-53 war.

North Korea has refused to talk directly with a South Korean government 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 it gets large-scale aid shipments and improved ties with Washington first.

American, Japanese and South Korean officials meet in Tokyo next week to try to find a way to get North Korea to attend peace talks.

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