Top Defector Says Famine
Killed 2.5 Million
North Koreans
By Jean Yoon

SEOUL (Reuters) - The highest-ranking North Korean to defect to South Korea on Monday estimated 2.5 million North Koreans had died in the last three years from famine conditions brought on by floods and drought. ``Hundreds of people are dying en masse from starvation,'' Hwang Jang-yop told a news conference at the Seoul Foreign Correspondents' Club. The 75-year-old defector said 500,000 North Koreans had starved to death in 1995 and a million each in 1996 and 1997 due to three years of bad harvests. ``The South needs to help its northern brethren by providing food and medical aid, in a way to prevent a trapped mouse from turning back and biting the cat,'' Hwang said. ``It's like a land of darkness there. Most people think it's too painful to go on. They even think if it takes a war to bring change they are willing to start a war,'' he said. The Korean Buddhist Sharing Movement, a private aid organisation, in March surprised the world by estimating three million North Koreans had starved to death since 1995. The figure was endorsed later by Andrew Natsios, executive director of World Vision Relief.

Natsios was a senior U.S. aid official under former president George Bush. Hwang's defection was the stuff of cloak and dagger novels. He sought asylum in South Korea's consulate in Beijing in February 1997 and was stuck for more than two months in China and the Philippines before being spirited to Seoul in April. Upon his arrival, Hwang declared his mission was to stop Pyongyang from launching a war as a desperate way out of hunger and economic collapse. North Korea, its farms laid waste by several years of flood and drought and decades of collectivist management, has received millions of tonnes of grain aid from countries such as the United States and arch-foe South Korea. Hwang said famine-stricken North Korea would welcome any sort of economic assistance from western countries as long as it did not carry political demands. He said that was the reason the North Korean leadership didn't object to a private donation of 500 cattle by a South Korean tycoon. Hyundai Group founder Chung Ju-yung, whose hometown is in the North, will lead a convoy of 50 trucks and 500 cattle into North Korea early on Tuesday.

The cattle were scheduled to leave the Seosan Farm, south of Seoul, late on Monday. Chung and the cattle would set off for North Korea on Tuesday morning through Panmunjom, the border village where talks between the rival Koreas have previously been held. He would be the first businessman to enter the North via Panmunjom on a civilian-organised visit, and the cows would go down in history as the first animals to make the trip. ``North Korean leaders would use the donation to promote themselves and for propaganda,'' said Hwang. Chung is scheduled to visit his hometown and discuss economic cooperation including a tourism project of Kumkang Mountain, located just across the North Korean border. The two Koreas have remained technically at war since 1953, when a truce halted the fighting in that war, and today more than a million troops face each other on the Cold War's last frontier. Separately, Hwang said he did not think North Korea would follow nuclear tests conducted by India and Pakistan. ``North Korea is not the kind of country that would blindly follow other countries' examples,'' he said. ``But it's possible that the North may use the issue in future negotiations with the outside world.'' North Korea in 1994 agreed to scrap its construction of graphite-based nuclear power plants in favour of light-water reactors, which are less suitable for producing weapons-grade plutonium. The United States, South Korea, Japan and the European Union agreed to pay for the light-water reactors.

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