WASHINGTON -- The onset of winter may seem an inopportune time for the United States to stop shipping sorely needed heavy oil to North Korea, where temperatures of 20 below zero are routine at this time of year.
The halt was announced just days ahead of a revised administration food aid policy for North Korea that could lead to cutbacks in 2003.
These are among signs of broad international unhappiness with North Korea lately. The country may be as isolated now as it has been at any time over the past three years.
The Bush administration, in consultation with Japan, South Korea and the European Union, ordered the oil cutoff last month in response to the North's admission that it is developing uranium-based nuclear weapons. On Tuesday, U.S. officials said a North Korean ship was intercepted in the Arabian Sea, carrying a dozen Scud-like missiles apparently intended for Yemen.
Old Pyongyang allies China and Russia share U.S. worries about the North's nuclear tinkering. Japan is cutting back on food assistance.
Europeans are feeling sandbagged by Pyongyang's policies, says Robert Einhorn of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He lists new European aid as doubtful under present circumstances.
Besides the U.S. oil shipments, Einhorn believes that another doomed energy assistance initiative will be two light-water reactors for North Korea that are being financed mostly by Japan and South Korea.
''It is extremely unlikely that both light-water reactors will be produced,'' Einhorn says. Nobody will announce the actual pulling of the plug because, he says, that would only encourage a North Korean provocation in response.
The reactors and the oil assistance were promised to North Korea in 1994 in exchange for a commitment by Pyongyang to forswear nuclear weapons.
Not much has been heard from ordinary North Koreans about the recent diplomatic back and forth.
Peter Hayes, who follows North Korea at the California-based Nautilus Institute, says the North's home and workplace heating problems are such that the cutoff of U.S. oil shipments after eight years won't make much of a difference.
''The energy economy is one-tenth of what it used to be,'' Hayes said. ''If you reduce it by 5 to 10 percent, you may get a 1 percent effect.''
Even if an oil shipment initially set for next week had gone ahead as scheduled, most of the country's buildings would have remained without heat anyway, he says.
Hayes believes that North Korea will be able to evade the devastating famine that struck the country in 1996-97. But, he says, the situation remains grim, with ''highly concentrated pockets of extreme malnutrition and starvation'' in some areas and ''generalized hunger'' elsewhere. As always, food supplies in Pyongyang will be adequate, he adds.
As for U.S. food aid, American officials said last week future deliveries could hinge on access by U.N. World Food Program monitors to food distribution points and competition for food relief from other disaster areas, especially Africa. America's 2002 food donations total 155,000 metric tons.
The U.N. World Food Program targets 6.4 million vulnerable North Koreans, but WFP officials say deliveries to 3 million have been halted since September because of reduced shipments from donor countries.
Describing the food situation as severe, the officials said the country's food distribution network allocates only 270 grams per day per person, about half of the minimum need.
Of particular concern, the officials said, are babies and children.
Those who are moderately malnourished risk becoming severely malnourished. Another worry is the malnourished mother who gives birth to an underweight child. Such children, the officials said, are preprogrammed to underachieve.
The officials, asking not to be identified, said slowdown in donations of flour, powdered milk, vitamins and minerals could force a shutdown of 18 WFP-supported factories that produce enriched blended foods and biscuits for millions of underfed infants and children.
George Gedda has covered foreign affairs for The Associated Press since 1968.
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