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Change of leadership in SKorea places starving NKorea in dilemma over usual aid request
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    SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea is facing its worst food shortage in years, yet its rich southern neighbor has yet to hear the usual cry for help.
    Instead, the communist regime is silent, and most experts see a connection to the election of a new South Korean president, conservative Lee Myung-bak, who wants concessions from North Korea in exchange for aid.
    Lee’s Grand National Party has argued that South Korea’s previous two presidents gave too much unconditional aid to buy reconciliation with the North. The party was a regular target of North Korean criticism. Now Pyongyang finds itself having to work with someone it dubbed a ‘‘philistine’’ and ‘‘traitor.’’
    That makes it hard for the regime to make the opening pitch for aid ‘‘because that could be seen as an expression of its weakness,’’ said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at Seoul’s University of North Korean Studies.
    The World Food Program predicts North Korea will fall some 1.4 million tons short of its food needs this year, because of flooding triggered by the heaviest rainfall in 40 years. The floods, which left some 600 people dead or missing, also destroyed more than 11 percent of the country’s crops, according to North Korea’s state media.
    Past crop failures have led to famine, and North Korea usually makes its requests for fertilizer aid between mid-January and mid-February for the spring planting season in March. South Korea typically provides 20 percent to 30 percent of it — between 200,000 and 500,000 tons.
    In the past, Seoul never rejected those demands except once, when tensions over North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs led to a temporary suspension of deliveries. The fertilizer aid, along with rice, has become a fixture in North Korea’s agricultural planning, analysts say.
    It ‘‘may not look big, but its absence can considerably affect the North’s economy,’’ said Kim Yong-hyun, a professor at Seoul’s Dongguk University.
    Kim expects Pyongyang to wait as long as it can before asking for fertilizer, and to do so through an unofficial channel.
    ‘‘For the North, the issue of fertilizer aid will be the first negotiation project with the incoming government,’’ Kim said. ‘‘It cannot but take a cautious approach.’’
    At the Unification Ministry, a government department charged with fostering harmony between the two halves of the Korean peninsula, an official said fertilizer was an urgent issue for the North and he expected a request would ultimately come through.
    Speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, the official said North Korea likely would make the request through a non-governmental channel because it would lose face if a formal request to the new president was rejected.
    So far, Pyongyang has seemed ambivalent about the change of presidency in South Korea.
    More than a month has passed since Lee’s election, his inauguration is set for Feb. 25, and North Korea has still not commented.
    It kept silent even when Lee said he would not hesitate to criticize North Korea on human rights — something that ordinarily would have guaranteed an angry riposte from the totalitarian regime.
    In September last year, with Lee looking increasingly likely to win the election, Pyongyang stopped attacking him and instead redirected its rhetoric at another conservative candidate.
    In its customary New Year message, it called for continued economic cooperation with South Korea.
    That message also called for ‘‘radically increasing grain output,’’ saying there is ‘‘no more urgent and important task.’’

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