Conditions for Food Aid to North Korea

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Conditions for Food Aid to North Korea

In the second-round inter-Korean ministerial talks that ended on September 1, the two sides agreed that, based on the principle of reciprocity, the South would examine and push for the issue of providing food in the form of a loan to the North. Although the food shortages in North Korea are said to have abated in recent months, international organizations and experts believe that more than a million tons of food a year is still needed. We are basically in agreement with sending food aid to North Korea, but several points should be examined first.

Providing food in the form of a loan to North Korea is unprecedented and it is bound mean large-scale aid. The North-South Cooperation Fund will not be enough to support this plan. North Korea's food shortage seems to derive mainly from structural problems, not from natural disasters and it is likely that the sending of food may become a regular, annual feature. The issue of food aid has now gone beyond the humanitarian level and has become a national task. The process of providing aid should therefore be made transparent. At the same time, there should be a guarantee that positive steps will be made in the inter-Korean relationship after the delivery of food.

For the sake of legitimacy the government must receive approval from the National Assembly before any food is sent. If the government intends to raise money using a shortcut, it may bring about unexpected repercussions later on. The government must explain to the general public and the opposition party why it is necessary to provide food to the North while at the same time gathering public opinion and allowing for lively debate on the issue. The fact is that the South itself has to import rice and in such a situation, if the government attempts to go around the National Assembly to extend food aid to the North, the public will not accept the government's position.

Immediately after the ministerial talks, the government announced that the North had offered a special condition under which it would pay back the food loan over several years. Yesterday, however, a Unification Ministry official denied the existence of any such special condition. Currently therefore, the public does not know what opinions the North and the South exchanged as to the scale and the method of food aid provision. When government officials change their stories so frequently, inevitably doubts and mistrust grow. The government needs to exhibit a more transparent attitude. If things are kept under wraps, it will be difficult for the government to receive public support for a variety of economic cooperation projects that are waiting in the wings. For example, some people argue that North Korean troops will invade the South without shedding blood when the road alongside the Seoul-Sinuiju railway is opened. The Ministry of National Defense must come forward to dispel public anxiety and explain what measures it has planned in case such a scenario were to occur.

Now that a large amount of food is to be sent to North Korea, we need to see concrete results, such as the return of POWs and abductees as well as the establishment of meeting places for separated families. When the size of aid grows and becomes regular, there must be corresponding changes such as the easing of military tensions. The government must pay attention not only to the process of delivering food, but also to the reciprocal measures the North might take. Only when such details are announced, can the general public endure the burden of providing aid gladly.

by Kim Young-hei

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