But nothing happened. At the end of September, a consortium of five U.S. humanitarian aid organizations issued a statement warning of a "potentially catastrophic food crisis" emerging in the North: "We fear that millions of North Koreans are caught in a political crossfire."
The text was notably silent on the precise nature of the politics involved, but most Korea-watchers understood what was meant: The stalemate in North Korea's relations with the West -- and particularly the breakdown of talks over the North's nuclear program -- was blocking the delivery of desperately needed aid. To be sure, officials Seoul and Washington have continued to profess belief in the hallowed principle that humanitarian concerns should be separated from political ones. But things are never that simple when it comes to North Korea -- especially given the urgency of international efforts to block its nuclear weapons program. North Korea itself, indeed, has all too often demonstrated that it is perfectly happy to make aid shipments the object of eminently political bargaining.
The logjam finally appeared to shift this past weekend, when reports began to emerge that the North Koreans had declared their willingness to enter into talks about limiting their uranium-enrichment program -- a major bone of contention in the complicated efforts to restart the long-dormant Six Party Talks aimed at curtailing the North's nukes. In return, Seoul and Washington made it known that they would re-open the aid spigot -- at least enough to relieve some of the most urgent needs.
For a brief moment it looked as though a spirit of common humanity might prevail. In fact, as we now know, Kim Jong Il, the man at the top of North Korea's political pyramid, was expiring from a heart attack just around the time that Western officials were bruiting about the prospect of a deal. (Though the news of his death was released on Monday morning on the peninsual, the North Korean news agency claims that he actually died two days earlier, on Dec. 17.) Officials at U.S. aid organizations say that they didn't even have time to confer with their counterparts in the U.S. government about whether the purported delivery of food assistance was actually going ahead.
For the time being, it has all been put on hold. The Americans, the South Koreans, and the other parties involved will be inclined to wait for a few weeks until they can learn more about the new regime in Pyongyang. And as for the new Kim on the throne, there is no telling how long he will need in order to feel secure enough to chart his own foreign policy. Kim Jong Un is strikingly young and inexperienced compared with his father, who despite almost a decade of preparation still needed several years to consolidate his hold on power. One thing is for sure: dramatic policy initiatives are unlikely to make the running. And concessions on the nuclear program are about as dramatic as it gets. If Seoul and Washington are only prepared to deliver food in return for a pledge on nukes, hungry Northerners could find themselves in for a wait.
The losers, indeed, are the ordinary North Koreans, who once again face the prospect of a winter with less than enough food to go around. Jim White, who is vice president of Mercy Corps, one of the five humanitarian organizations in the consortium that traditionally provides U.S. food assistance to North Korea, puts it this way: "We believe that there is still a great need for food assistance -- regardless of political transitions and regardless of nuclear issues." One can only hope that the greater need will prevail. But I wouldn't bet on it.