South Korea approves S$10.8m aid to North Korean children and pregnant women

Children playing football at a school for orphans on the outskirts of Pyongyang on April 13, 2017.
Children playing football at a school for orphans on the outskirts of Pyongyang on April 13, 2017. PHOTO: AFP

SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea approved a plan on Thursday (Sept 22) to send US$8 million (S$10.8 million) worth of humanitarian aid to North Korea, the South's Unification Ministry said, as part of an aid policy that the government says remains unaffected by geopolitical tensions with the North.

The aid decision was made after a meeting of government officials chaired by Unification Minister Cho Myong Gyon. It comes after the United Nations approved new sanctions against North Korea for its sixth nuclear test earlier this month.

The aid decision also came hours before President Moon Jae In is scheduled to speak at the UN General Assembly in New York.

The South said it aims to send US$4.5 million worth of nutritional products for children and pregnant women through the World Food Programme and US$3.5 million worth of vaccines and medicinal treatments through UNICEF. The exact timing of when the aid will be sent, as well as its size, will be confirmed later, the ministry said in a statement.

The WFP and UNICEF had approached the South Korean government in May and July this year to contribute in aiding North Korea, the statement added.

"We have consistently said we would pursue humanitarian aid for North Korea in consideration of the poor conditions children and pregnant women are in there, apart from political issues,"said Cho in opening remarks at the meeting.

Ahead of the meeting, UNICEF's regional director for East Asia and the Pacific Karin Hulshof said in a statement the problems North Korean children face "are all too real".

"Today, we estimate that around 200,000 children are affected by acute malnutrition, heightening their risk of death and increasing rates of stunting," Hulshof said.

"Food and essential medicines and equipment to treat young children are in short supply." Cho's ministry had said earlier this month they were looking into giving North Korea aid, which launched a backlash of disapproval from both the public and opposition parties.

It has dragged down South Korean President Moon Jae In's approval rating. Realmeter, a South Korean polling organisation, said on Thursday Moon's approval rating stood at 65.7 per cent, weakening for a fourth straight month.

Although the approval rate is still high, those surveyed said Moon had fallen out of favour due to North Korea's continued provocations and the government's decision to consider sending aid to North Korea, Realmeter said.

South Korea's decision to mull over fresh aid to the North has also caused a rift of concern in neighbouring Japan and the United States, according to government officials there, leading Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to bring up the issue during a phone call with Moon last week.

Moon had said aid was something to be considered separately from political issues, quoted by his office.

South Korean humanitarian aid efforts to North Korea had been halted since North Korea's fourth nuclear test in January last year. The last time the South had sent aid to the North was in December 2015 through the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) under ex-president Park Geun Hye.

North Korea has conducted two more nuclear tests since then, with its most recent and largest taking place early this month. Pyongyang has launched numerous missiles as well, including two intercontinental ballistic missiles and two other rockets that have flown over Japan.

Such provocations have sparked strong disapproval from the international community, especially from the United States and Japan.