The United States and South Korea announced Monday that they will resume emergency food aid to North Korea, an apparent sign that tensions may be easing in a five-day standoff over the defection of a high-level North Korean official.
The announcements followed what appeared to be a softening in North Korea’s position on the defection of Hwang Jang Yop, a senior North Korean Communist Party ideologue who sought asylum last week at the South Korean Embassy in Beijing.
The new North Korean position suggested that Pyongyang may be willing to let the matter drop if Hwang is shown to have defected of his own free will.
North Korea previously had insisted that Hwang was kidnapped and declared it would respond with force if he were not returned. But the state radio network, relaying a statement attributed to the Foreign Ministry, said Monday:
“Our stand is simple and clear. If he was kidnapped, we cannot tolerate it, and we will take decisive countermeasures. If he sought asylum, it means that he is a renegade and he is dismissed.”
The crack in North Korea’s hardline stance on Hwang’s defection seemed to alleviate anxiety from Beijing to Washington, where officials have been closely monitoring a situation that threatens the fragile calm on the Korean Peninsula.
“Sometimes you have to write off a loss, and that’s what they appear to be doing; they know they can’t win this one,” said one U.S. official of the the North Korean statement. “I’m heartened a little bit.”
In Beijing, dozens of North Korean agents who had been parked outside the South Korean Embassy left the site Monday, and the spirits of Chinese troops protecting the embassy lightened visibly, according to reports from the Chinese capital.
The Hwang case has posed a delicate dilemma for China, which is caught between its traditional allies in Pyongyang and its new trade partners in prosperous Seoul.
Meanwhile, State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns said that the United States will contribute food aid to a new U.N. appeal to head off famine in North Korea.
Burns, traveling in Paris with Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, said a formal announcement of the amount will be made soon, but U.S. officials said it would probably be about $10 million, or roughly $4 million more than the United States donated to a similar appeal last year.
Burns maintained, however, that the humanitarian move had nothing to do with the defector situation.
“This is between South Korea and North Korea,” he said.