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N. Korea's feast and famine

Leader Kim Jong Il's birthday celebrations belie hunger in thecountryside, lingering nuclear threat.

It's the birthday of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and, as usual, the tables are heavy with trays of smoked salmon and platters of beef and shrimp.

Each year the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan honors Mr. Kim, who celebrated his birthday Feb. 16 and who leads a reclusive country where perhaps 2 million people - about 8 percent of the population - have died for lack of food this decade.

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The association is loyal to North Korea, and its deputy chairman, Ho Jong Man, sees no connection between the famine back home and the lobster-bedecked bounty laid out before larger-than-life portraits of Kim and his father, the late President Kim Il Sung.

North Korea's food troubles, Mr. Ho says, are a momentary need, just as when Floridians ask for help in the wake of a hurricane.

"Wait for another two to three years," he says during a brief interview as he greets guests. "We will be helping others."

Waiting is one thing that North Korea can do, it turns out. One indication comes from a secretly filmed videotape, shot last fall by a North Korean now in hiding in China, that shows scenes from two cities in the central part of the country.

The tape concentrates on the plight of what it calls a burgeoning population of street children who must fend for themselves or starve. Equally gripping for policymakers are the markets depicted. The hidden camera pans scores of vendors selling noodles, vegetables, and manufactured goods - a surprise in a country where private commerce is technically banned.

Unleashing market forces may help keep the country adequately fed and tamp down discontent, says one United States official who has seen the tape.

"The bottom line," he adds, speaking on condition of anonymity, "is that North Korea could be around for a while."

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If the waiting game continues, anxiety will persist in Northeast Asia. South Korea - the capitalist democracy that inhabits the southern half of the Korean Peninsula - is perpetually on guard against attack from its Communist brethren. The Japanese are edgy about missiles. Last August North Korea sent a three-stage rocket into the skies over northern Japan - allegedly putting a small satellite into orbit - and the Japanese have been aware ever since that their neighbors' missile program constitutes the most pressing threat they have had to face since the Soviet Union collapsed. Even the CIA admitted it was surprised by North Korea's three-stage capability.

America is waiting to figure out what to do. Last year President Clinton assigned former Defense Secretary William Perry to review US policy toward North Korea, and Mr. Perry's report is expected in a couple of weeks. The US and its allies are frustrated that years of effort to engage North Korea have not produced any real increase in the peace and stability of Northeast Asia.

North Korea and the US agreed in 1994 that the North would abandon its nuclear program - once considered a potential source of weapons - in exchange for oil supplies and two light-water reactors to be provided by South Korea, Japan, and others. The light-water technology does not produce weapons-grade material as readily as North Korea's own graphite-based nuclear reactor.

That deal is foundering, partly because of North Korean frustrations over the slow pace of progress. Another reason is a lack of trust. US satellites discovered an underground facility under construction last summer, and in January National Security Adviser Samuel Berger said the US believes another graphite reactor is being built at the site.

North Korea, meanwhile, denies these charges and demands that the US pay $300 million if it carries out an inspection and finds nothing suspicious. The US and North Korea have been negotiating their way toward some sort of compromise.

In Japan the prospect of a US policy revision and the possibility that Perry may travel to the North Korean capital after he finishes his review are prompting new nail-biting. Katsumi Sato, a longtime Tokyo-based North Korea watcher, disparages the so-called comprehensive approach that some analysts say may be the fruit of Perry's review.

This tack might involve the US lifting economic sanctions and granting diplomatic recognition in exchange for North Korea abandoning or curtailing its nuclear and missile programs. It might also involve a warming of chilly relations between North and South.

"It would only make North Korea happy," Mr. Sato says. "The US doesn't know Kim Jong Il. They don't know what Kim Jong Il is capable of," he adds darkly. "The best [strategy] is to apply militaristic pressure so an internal breakdown takes place."

"The line of the US is that North Korea is unpredictable, that Kim Jong Il is an enigma, that you don't know what he has in mind - I don't think so," says Yasuhiko Yoshida, a professor of international relations at Saitama University, who has visited North Korea several times.

"They are very logical and clear," he says of the North Koreans, summarizing their agenda: Preserve the long-term survival of the Kim regime, gain access to food and economic assistance, and negotiate diplomatic recognition from the US. These gains would enable the North to negotiate relations with the South - an economically advanced US ally - on a more equal footing.

Mr. Ho, the host of the Kim Jong Il birthday fete in Tokyo, says that the North Korean leader's greatest ambition is "peaceful reunification."

But the food crisis, says Professor Yoshida, does not pressure the North Korean government too much. "I went to Pyongyang last fall and every day I was treated to luxurious food, the food for the elite. They don't care about people starving in the countryside."

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