North Korea seeks China food aid amid flare-up with Seoul


North Korea has asked China to provide massive food aid for its hungry people amid a flare-up in tensions with former major donor South Korea, a news report said on Friday.


"This means the North won't look to the South for food aid, at least for a while," Seoul's Hankyoreh newspaper quoted a diplomatic source as saying. "China has not yet responded to this request."


A leading analyst also said the North's leader was likely to turn to his traditional ally.


"Following the April 18-19 US-South Korea summit, Kim Jong-Il is likely to visit China to strengthen their traditional alliance as 'brotherly neighbours' and request massive food aid," Professor Yang Moo-Jin of the University of North Korean Studies told AFP.


In recent years the impoverished hardline communist state has received around 400,000 tons of rice and about 300,000 tons of fertiliser a year from the prosperous South.


But the North is furious about the decision by Seoul's new conservative government to link economic assistance to progress in nuclear disarmament.


The North, which relies on international help to feed many of its people, accepted aid and investment worth billions of dollars from South Korea through a decade-long "sunshine" engagement policy under liberal presidents.


Its party newspaper Rodong Sinmun, in an article blasting President Lee Myung-Bak as a traitor and US sycophant, said this week it no longer needs Seoul's help.


"The DPRK (North Korea) will be able to live as well as it wishes without any help from the South, as it did in the past," it said.


Seoul officials say the North has made no request for rice or fertiliser this year despite its increasingly severe food shortage.


"As to fertiliser and rice aid, we will take into account the overall situation and changes in North Korea's attitude in case the North asks for it," Kim Jung-Soo, director general of the Unification Ministry's humanitarian cooperation bureau, told AFP.


On Thursday the North announced it was suspending all dialogue with South Korea and closing the border to Seoul officials, its toughest action in a week of growing cross-border tensions.


The North acted after Seoul refused to apologise for remarks by its military chief, which Pyongyang interpreted as authorising a pre-emptive military strike.


Analysts say the North may be testing Lee's resolve and trying to sway opinion against his conservative party in next week's parliamentary election.


They say Pyongyang may also stage more missile tests, or naval manoeuvres near the disputed Yellow Sea border – the scene of bloody clashes in 1999 and 2002.


Late Thursday the North's navy command said three South Korean warships had entered its waters in a "serious military provocation" – a charge denied by Seoul.


South Korea has made a low-key response to the week-long campaign of hostility. "Some people ask why Seoul does not respond to North Korea but we'll endure and wait," Unification Minister Kim Ha-Joong said on Friday, adding that the North does not understand Seoul's position.


In Jakarta, US Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill termed the North's comments "very unhelpful to the situation."


Aid agencies say the North faces an especially severe food shortage this year after floods last summer ruined harvests and international grain prices rose.


Even elite citizens in the capital Pyongyang have had state rations cut off for the next six months, South Korea's Good Friends aid group said on Thursday.


It said the situation was worse elsewhere in the country.


The UN's World Food Programme had no information on whether rations had been suspended in the capital but said the overall situation was bad.


"We are very concerned about food security overall in North Korea this year because of floods last year," said regional spokesman Paul Risley. (AFP)