By Paul Tsoundarou (6 February 2001):
The North Korean famine was the catalyst for a gradual, yet sustained, improvement in the climate between the two Koreas. The direction of the relations was never certain, and always carried underlying mistrust, even though the increasing amount of contact between the two states on a humanitarian level eased the military tensions gradually. In this case, the incremental approach to improving relations which the famine triggered can be explained by two important factors. The nature of the bilateral relationship is the first; quite simply, one did not exist apart from an official state of war. The second component was the very nature of the disaster, in this case the famine, where it was not extremely dangerous early on, but progressively became more desperate, with the North gradually accepting the situation and requesting additional humanitarian aid. The result of the contact generated due to the famine was the eventual visit of the South Korean President to North Korea and an atmosphere of reconciliation and friendship has emerged, which will only continue to aid the improvement of the bilateral relationship and lead to possible reunification.
By Ilan Kelman (23 March 2001):
Did famine and flood in recent years contribute to the opening of North Korea to the outside world? Such a question is not easy to answer considering that Kim Dae-Jung was elected president of South Korea in December 1997 promising to bring a new era to relations with North Korea--and he did. Would it really be possible to claim that his promises stemmed from, or were influenced by, the humanitarian crisis in the North? Even if not, his successes may well have been, as argued above by Paul Tsoundarou.
The overriding need for an immense amount of aid, i.e. the scale of the disaster, in this case might also be significant, considering that other disasters do not seem to have had any influence on Korean relations. For example, severe storms and storm surges frequently affect the west coast of the Korean peninsula--as noted in Kim, S.C., J. Chen, K. Park, J.K. Choi, 1998, "Coastal surges from extratropical storms on the west coast of the Korean Peninsula", Journal of Coastal Research, vol. 14, no. 2, pp. 660-666--but have not yielded diplomatic dividends.
Irrespective, the North’s response to Kim Dae-Jung's election was frequently to see how far they could push his tolerance through both incursions into the South and missile testing. Similarly, the North’s reaction to Kim Dae-Jung winning the 2000 Nobel Peace Prize was not overly supportive, perhaps indicating that disaster would not be the overriding influence in North Korea's interaction with the outside world. Nonetheless, food aid seems to have been used to force diplomatic issues--or at least as part of a complex series of negotiations involving aid, diplomatic ties, and military capability--so perhaps in the absence of the need for aid, the other issues would not have arisen.
The longevity of any disaster diplomacy with respect to North Korea has been called into question by President Bush, who seems to prefer an ideological foreign policy which he intends to unleash upon the world irrespective of the consequences or any humanitarian imperative. As noted above, on 7 March 2001 "President George W Bush has ruled out an early resumption of talks with North Korea, saying US policy towards the region would have to be reviewed first.", exactly one year after Japan resumed sending food aid to North Korea, partly to assist diplomatic efforts. Perhaps, though, President Bush is unaware or uncaring about the true situation in North Korea. Such foreign policy and the inevitable diplomatic fallout--which perhaps is what Bush's administration is hoping for, in order to justify their pre-established military ideas--are clearly driven by forces other than natural disasters and it is not clear whether or not another natural disaster in North Korea would catalyse changes.