MAY 1, 1997
Our report on North and South Korea comes from Ian Williams of Independent Television News.
JIM LEHRER: Now, a Korea update. Our report on the two Koreas comes from Ian Williams of Independent Television News.
IAN WILLIAMS, ITN: Patrolling the world's most fortified border dividing the Korean Peninsula. It's the most militarized area on the planet. Nothing crosses here, only the blare of music from the South, competing against propaganda broadcast from the North. The last rites, perhaps, for a Stalinist state on the brink of starvation and collapse. Video evidence of the growing crisis beyond the wire has been provided by famine relief agencies. They've not been able to carry out a full nutritional survey, and most media organizations have been denied access to the country. But the agencies claim they have seen and heard sufficient to convince them that North Korea is facing a food crisis. They say providing aid is one of the most urgent humanitarian tasks facing the international community. It's also one of the most politicized. No more so than in Seoul, the rich, sophisticated capital of South Korea just 13 miles south of the border. Reports from the North have provoked a groundswell of public sympathy, but sentiment is split between those wanting to help and those who see any help as merely sustaining the North Korean regime. And the only aid being allowed by the government are private donations which must be channeled through the Red Cross.
HEH-NAM KIM, Korean Red Cross: No matter how the government of the North, the regime of the North might be, still people think they should help those in need because we are one race, one people.
IAN WILLIAMS: One people that's politically a world apart. Skeptics point to last week's lavish parade by part of North Korea's million strong army, marking the birthday of their late leader, Kim Il-Sung. It was held in spite of the looming famine. It strengthened the hand of those who see the North's problems as a product of their own failed system and want to see confessions, including peace talks, before large scale official aid is granted.
MOO-HONG MOON, Assistant Minister for Unification: (speaking through interpreter) As you saw, they held an extravagant celebration for Kim Il-Sung's birthday. Such political propaganda costs millions of dollars a year, and if they saved just a small proportion of their military spending, it would greatly solve the food problem.
IAN WILLIAMS: It's a sentiment shared by Heo Chang-Geol, a former North Korean army officer who recently defected with his daughter. He says the food situation has been deteriorating throughout the last decade. Though his wife and son remain in the North, he's urging the South not to provide aid. In an interview with Channel 4 News he said food goes firstly to the army and government officials and will continue to do so as long as the rigid political system remains in place.
HEO CHANG-GEOL, Defector from North Korea: (speaking through interpreter) The system must collapse and unless it does the food aid will not get to the people who need it. The food problem is serious.
IAN WILLIAMS: So for now, unless the North agrees to peace talks, the border, the most direct route for any large-scale aid, will remain closed. Since the end of the Korean War it's been the goal of both sides to rip down this fence and unify the country. Now, with famine and economic collapse threatening the North, unification seems closer than at any time during the last 45 years. But far from celebrating, many in the South are filled with trepidation. The most senior North Korean official ever to defect arrived in Seoul last month with warnings of a desperate military lunge South. Huang Chang Yop claims the beleaguered North remains determined to go to war to unify Korea on its terms. Many find that fanciful. Their bigger worry is economic. Thousands of trade unionists and students attended a May Day rally in Seoul today which ended in clashes with riot police. There's been anger in recent months that government move to reform labor laws threatening job security. Yet, the economic changes that so angered the unions would be trivial compared with the cost of unification should the North collapse. Surprisingly little work has been done on the subject, and those who have tried to gauge the impact say it's more than Seoul could endure.
PROFESSOR EUI-GAK HWANG, Korea University: The burden on South Korea would be much bigger than the burden West Germany had in 1990 when the unification arrived. So in terms of cost aside, South Korea would expect that more burden, more hard difficulty.
IAN WILLIAMS: But those who collected jars of North Korean soil outside a Seoul department store today demonstrated the strength of sentiment in the South and how isolated the North has been. Poignantly, for these men, the soil came from their home town, which they haven't seen since they fled from the North in 1947. But the fact it took three years to get permission from both Korean governments for the soil to be imported hardly bodes well for the latest aid efforts.