NYT-‘South Korea Sends Food Aid to North’-Gov’t to Gov’t Strategy Questioned by HHK Founder

October 25, 2010
South Korea Sends Food Aid to North
SEOUL, South Korea — Freighters carrying aid shipments of rice and instant noodles left for North Korea on Monday in what analysts said could be an important step in the easing of tensions between the two Koreas. It was the first food aid sent to the North by the South Korean government since President Lee Myung-bak was elected in early 2008.

A ship with 5,000 tons of rice left the port of Gusan and a freighter carrying 3 million cups of instant noodles left Incheon, according to an official with the Red Cross in Seoul, which is handling the delivery logistics. Both shipments were bound for Dandong, China, where the food was to be unloaded later this week and then trucked into North Korea.

Deliveries of cement and medicines are scheduled for December, part of an $8.5 million aid package that was agreed upon last month, when the countries also struck a deal to resume reunions between family members separated by the Korean War. The first of those reunions is to begin Saturday.

“The food aid is a small gift, and it’s purely humanitarian aid,” said Choi Jin-wook, a North Korea expert at the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul. “What is important is not the amount, but that North Korea accepted it.

“They keep knocking on the door of the United States and South Korea, and these shipments today have to be seen in the context of the North’s continuing efforts to make a breakthrough. It could be the starting point to a new chapter of inter-Korean relations.”

Those relations have been badly frayed since the sinking of a South Korean warship in March with the loss of 46 sailors. Seoul has blamed the sinking of its corvette, the Cheonan, on a North Korean torpedo attack, and the conservative Lee government has demanded an apology as a precondition to any substantive diplomatic talks or rapprochement. The North has denied involvement in the sinking.

“North Korea needs to express their regrets about the sailors,” said Mr. Choi. “It’s hard to say what exact wording would be acceptable as an apology. But I think they’re working on it right now.”

Analysts said desperate economic conditions in the North — made worse by a broad range of international sanctions — have prompted the North to recently begin a series of diplomatic overtures toward the South.

Parts of North Korea suffered severe flooding in August, but even under ideal conditions the nation of 25 million cannot feed itself. There are chronic and widely reported shortages of rice, sugar and cooking oil. The United Nations World Food Program says one in three North Korean children under the age of 5 is malnourished, while more than 25 percent of the overall population needs food assistance.

Rice, a staple of the diets in both Koreas, is also a highly symbolic item in terms of food aid throughout Asia. The 5,000 tons of rice in the shipment on Monday can feed about 325,000 people for a month, according to Red Cross estimates.

Some analysts and aid workers expressed concern that the rice would likely be diverted to political elites, loyal party members and the military rather than delivered to the neediest in the North. That has been the pattern, they said, of previous government aid deliveries.

“I’m not unhappy about food going up, but I fear that this kind of government-to-government distribution to Pyongyang will be carried out along loyalty lines,” said Tim Peters, founder of the civic group Helping Hands Korea. “Distribution through small NGOs that are more strategically placed and can get the food into the interior and places like remote mining towns, that is the more intelligent strategy.”

Mr. Peters said his group, which primarily assists North Korean refugees, has received numerous reports from defectors that residents in the hinterlands “never see any of this kind of food aid.”

Five weeks ago, a truck convoy delivered 203 tons of rice to North Korea, the first rice donations of any kind from the South in nearly three years. That nongovernmental assistance, which was donated by charity groups and opposition political parties, came one day after a shipment of 530 tons of flour was sent by a South Korean provincial government and civic groups.