SEOUL (NYTIMES) - South Korea said on Friday (May 17) that it would provide US$8 million (S$11 million) in humanitarian aid to help North Korea's malnourished children and pregnant women, as the North faces severe drought and a food crisis caused by its worst harvest in a decade.
The sum represents funds that the South had originally planned to donate in 2017, through the World Food Programme (WFP) and the United Nations Children's Fund. But the donation was shelved after North Korea launched a ballistic missile over Japan that year and Shinzo Abe, Japan's leader, argued for delaying it.
South Korea made it clear on Friday that it did not regard the current stalemate in talks over the North's nuclear programme as a reason to deny the aid.
"Our government's position is that it will provide humanitarian assistance for North Korean people regardless of the political situation," the country's Unification Ministry said in a statement.
The WFP and the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) announced this month that about 10 million North Koreans, or 40 per cent of the population, were facing "severe food shortages" after the country suffered its worst harvest in a decade last fall.
And North Korea said on Wednesday that it was experiencing its worst drought in 37 years, raising fears that crops due to be harvested next month, like wheat and barley, will also suffer.
No reports of widespread starvation have emerged from North Korea, which was ravaged by famine in the 1990s. But UN relief agencies have warned of a crisis in the coming months "if no proper and urgent humanitarian actions are taken".
The South Korean aid package is expected to include US$4.5 million to help the WFP provide nutrition-rich food supplies to North Korean hospitals and daycare facilities, as well as US$3.5 million for Unicef projects supplying vaccines, medicine and malnutrition treatment to children and pregnant women.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in's government hopes goodwill gestures like the aid package will help persuade North Korea to return to dialogue with the United States. It has said that US President Donald Trump supports the idea of the South providing humanitarian aid.
But Moon's government also fears that South Korea's conservative opposition will accuse it of appeasement if it gives the North a larger aid package, especially with North Korea having resumed short-range missile tests.
South Korean conservatives argue that the North has squandered resources on its nuclear arms programme that it should have used to help its people.
The UN has imposed a series of tough sanctions on the North over its nuclear programme since 2016, banning the export of coal, iron ore and other key North Korean products, as well as sharply cutting oil imports. Those sanctions have deprived the government of important sources of income, as well as undercutting its ability to import food.
North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Un, has been hoping to win relief from sanctions in return for partial dismantlement of his country's nuclear weapons facilities.
Trump refused such an offer in February at his second meeting with Kim, in Vietnam, demanding that the North relinquish all its nuclear weapons. The talks have since been stymied.
North Korea's resumption of short-range missile tests last week has been widely seen as a warning that it may return to more ambitious missile launches unless sanctions are eased.
Kim has given Washington until the end of the year to show more flexibility, indicating that his country will otherwise seek an alternative to diplomacy.
The UN sanctions do not prohibit humanitarian aid to the North. But as its nuclear and missile work has escalated in recent years, international relief agencies have been unable to collect substantial donations for chronically malnourished children and nursing mothers in the North.
Moon's conservative predecessors had sharply curtailed humanitarian aid in response to the North's nuclear and missile tests.
But Moon, a political liberal, has backed humanitarian aid along with other forms of engagement with the North since taking office in May 2017. His government gave the North US$1 million worth of pesticides last year, the South's first direct governmental aid to the country since 2010.
Moon's government also said on Friday that it would let South Korean businessmen visit the industrial complex in Kaesong, a North Korean border town, that was jointly operated by the Koreas until Moon's immediate predecessor shut it down in 2016. The executives want to assess the condition of their factories at the complex, which was run with North Korean labour.