South Korea to send the North 50,000 tonnes of rice

People taking part in an annual rice planting event in Nampho City, North Korea, on May 12, 2019.
People taking part in an annual rice planting event in Nampho City, North Korea, on May 12, 2019.PHOTO: AFP

SEOUL (NYTIMES) - South Korea said on Wednesday (June 19) that it would provide 50,000 tonnes of rice to North Korea, in the hope that the humanitarian aid will help persuade the North to return to talks on improving inter-Korean ties and ending its nuclear weapons programme.

Mr Kim Yeon-chul, the South Korean unification minister, said the rice shipment would be delivered through the United Nations (UN) World Food Programme before September to help North Korea during what are traditionally lean months.

He also dangled the prospect of more assistance, saying that South Korea would decide on "the time and scale for additional food aid" after reviewing "the results of this round of support".

The UN reported last month that about 40 per cent of North Korea's population was in urgent need of food aid after the country suffered its worst harvest in a decade. With another harvest under way this month, there are fears that crops such as wheat and barley will fall short as North Korea suffers its worst drought in 37 years.

So far, no reports of widespread starvation have emerged from North Korea, where as many as two million people died during a famine in the 1990s, according to some estimates.

The rice shipment, which is worth more than US$100 million (S$136 million), will be South Korea's first aid shipment of grains for North Korea since 2010, when it sent 5,000 tonnes of rice.

The announcement came a day before Chinese President Xi Jinping was to start a two-day visit to North Korea. The Chinese leader is also on a mission to persuade the North to return to denuclearisation talks with the United States, hoping that his mediating role will give Beijing leverage in its trade war with Washington.

 
 
 

President Moon Jae-in of South Korea has tried to serve as a mediator in the nuclear talks, making his efforts a hallmark of his foreign policy along with improving inter-Korean relations.

But his efforts have come to a standstill since the breakdown in February of a summit in Vietnam between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

In April, Mr Moon said he was willing to meet Mr Kim at any time or place to help break the impasse between North Korea and the US. Mr Kim has shown little interest so far.

But in the past week, Mr Moon said that both South Korea and the US are in contact with North Korea to resume dialogue.

South Korean officials said they were not ruling out the possibility of the two Korean leaders holding a quick meeting on the border between their countries. Such a meeting would be similar to the one Mr Moon and Mr Kim held in May 2018 in an effort to salvage a cancelled summit between Mr Kim and Mr Trump.

Mr Moon has long argued for providing humanitarian aid to North Korea, seeing it as a trust-building measure that will help bring the country back to the negotiating table. After the UN report last month, South Korea said it would provide US$8 million in humanitarian aid to help North Korea's malnourished children and pregnant women.

But such aid is deeply unpopular among Mr Moon's conservative opponents at home, especially when the North has not only made no progress in removing its nuclear weapons, but has also resumed testing of short-range missiles.

To help blunt such criticism, Mr Moon's government hopes to persuade North Korea to agree to a new round of reunions of relatives separated during the Korean War in the early 1950s. These reunions, in which people meet their siblings and children for the first time since the war, have tended to soften South Koreans' attitudes towards the North, at least temporarily.

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 country.

South Korea has provided North Korea with US$3 billion in humanitarian aid since 1995, when the first signs of a famine emerged there. That included US$936 million in governmental food aid and US$248 million in aid through international relief agencies.

But Mr Moon's two conservative predecessors sharply curtailed humanitarian aid in response to the North's nuclear and missile tests.