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Originally published April 5, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified April 5, 2007 at 2:07 AM

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Tom Plate / Syndicated columnist

North Korean kids go hungry while politicians play games

In North Korea, many children go to bed hungry, malnourished and wake up in even worse shape. None of these children is yet a card-carrying...

LOS ANGELES — In North Korea, many children go to bed hungry, malnourished and wake up in even worse shape.

None of these children is yet a card-carrying member of the People's Democratic Party of North Korea (DPKR), and by the time they are grown up, assuming they do not die of starvation along the way, it may be that the present regime itself will have died off or morphed into something much better. Their current plight, therefore, can be categorized as nothing other than a humanitarian problem.

They therefore should not have become a political football but, alas, the United States, South Korea and North Korea (inadvertently or not) are making their suffering into just that. The effect is a deepening of the humanitarian tragedy.

The DPKR, for one, is politicizing the crisis because it is, well, a communist state that sees Western spying in the eyes of every aid worker and wants to control every dollar that comes into the country. Humanitarian-aid organizations prefer to distribute their food aid themselves to assure that it winds up in the distended stomachs of those who need it most, and this is generally the children, not the army.

For its part, South Korea is guilty of politicization because two years ago it started sending its aid directly to North Korean authorities instead of to aid officials from the United Nations' World Food Program, the primary humanitarian-aid agency for the North Korean crisis. It may well be in Seoul's national interest to butter up Pyongyang, but if it wants to prevent the regime from collapsing someday and dumping countless refugees on its borders, it ought to pri-oritize the feeding of the children.

And the United States has added to the politicizing of the aid process by tying the issue of humanitarian relief to the outcome of the six-party talks, which are aimed at the denuclearization of North Korea. That is because further movement in these talks appears to be dependent on the transfer to North Korea of about $25 million now in a bank in Macau, the little tourist spot and gambling den that's a special administrative region of China.

Washington had agreed to permit these funds (which it claimed were the fruits of serious crimes like arms trafficking) to find their way back to North Korea as part of the latter's consent to move forward in the denuclearization process.

But this agreement in principle is bogged down in the details of how the funds would in fact be conveyed to Pyongyang. The return route (as of this writing) is blocked by concerns at the semi-independent Bank of China, the obvious intermediary and transfer facility. When China privatized this bank, as the West and the U.S. had long urged, the government in Beijing had relinquished direct control. So while Beijing urgently wants the funds shipped to North Korea, the bank custodians are reluctant to touch accounts that may be comprised of illegal monies.

Such an ethical standard is, of course, the norm for any banking institution that wishes, for starters, to differentiate itself from, say, a shady offshore bank. What's more, Washington has often lectured China on the need for a clean-hands norm in its banking system.

At the same time, the Bush administration is in a lather to get the North Korean crisis cooled down while its hands are full with Iraq and Iran. So it's hard to believe that the six-party talks are going to be held hostage for long to something like $25 million, which is pocket change to Washington and a very small price to pay to get this problem off the international radar screen.

The idiotic bureaucratic and political hold-up frustrates, demoralizes and infuriates the committed humanitarians of the World Food Program. In response, they have launched a well-needed and well-justified international public-awareness campaign to get the arguably well-intended but cruelly counterproductive North Korean, South Korean and American governments off their backs so food can get into the mouths of starving babes.

No child deserves to go hungry at night and have his body and mind shrink for lack of nutrition. Make no mistake about it: As victims of war, (albeit the last remnants of the Cold War) they are like starving children everywhere whose adults cannot behave much better than animals.

UCLA professor Tom Plate has just published his media memoir, "Confessions of an American Media Man."

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