Lee says ties with North should be made ‘healthy’
Signs of a thaw in frozen inter-Korean relations emerged yesterday as President Lee Myung-bak unveiled his intention to “properly” manage ties with North Korea, after Pyongyang released seven fishermen after weeks of captivity and made a rare request for aid.
“Inter-Korean relations should become healthy,” President Lee said yesterday in a meeting with the ruling Grand National Party leadership. “I am trying to manage the ties properly, and the South Korean Red Cross’ plan to provide humanitarian aid is also a step forward.”
The president said he is aware of the South Korean public’s concern about inter-Korean issues, adding, “I am trying to work on it appropriately.”
Lee’s remarks came as South Korea was reviewing the North’s request for flood relief aid. According to the Ministry of Unification, the North’s Red Cross asked its South Korean counterpart on Saturday for specific items: rice, heavy machinery and concrete.
The ministry said yesterday that the communist government had sent the notice over the weekend through the Kaesong Industrial Complex management committee. Senior government officials said Seoul was considering the request positively.
According to Unification Minister Hyun In-taek, North Korea requested rice, building materials and machinery “instead of emergency foodstuffs and first aid kits.”
The South Korean Red Cross had offered North Korea aid worth 10 billion won ($8.5 million) to help it recover from heavy rains at the end of last month. Floods were believed to have killed dozens and forced tens of thousands to evacuate North Korean towns bordering China.
The South’s offer of flood aid, which did not include rice, was made on Aug. 31, and the North replied Saturday asking for different items.
The North also informed the South Monday that it would free yesterday seven fishermen intercepted on Aug. 8, along with their squid boat. The peacemaking gesture was made two days after it replied to the South’s flood aid offer, indicating a change in Pyongyang’s attitude.
Relations between the two Koreas soured after the North staged a series of provocations after the start of the conservative Lee administration. While most inter-Korean projects carried out under the former two liberal governments’ Sunshine Policy have ended, the Kaesong Industrial Complex remains the last functioning symbol of inter-Korean reconciliation.
Seoul’s hard-line approach toward Pyongyang was in response to the North’s fatal shooting of a South Korean tourist at the Mount Kumgang resort and to nuclear and missile tests, as well as the alleged March sinking of the naval warship Cheonan.
Signs of change in Seoul’s position are emerging steadily. On Monday, a senior official said South Korea was considering allowing civilian relief groups to send rice to the North. Since Lee took office in February, no rice aid has been given to the North after his administration linked such assistance with Pyongyang’s willingness to give up its nuclear weapons program.
Rice aid provided to the North under the liberal governments had also prompted concerns about transparency in monitoring. The conservatives worried the rice was being diverted to the North’s military.
Blue House spokeswoman Kim Hee-jung warned against interpreting Lee’s latest remarks as a change in the administration’s North Korea policy. “It should not be interpreted as a sudden change,” she said. “The president’s remarks should be understood as an intention to continue humanitarian aid provisions through the Red Cross.
“Even when the president issued a stern warning toward the North after the Cheonan’s sinking,” Kim said, “he said the South will continue providing assistance for infants and children in the North.”
A senior Blue House official, however, spoke more positively about the situation. “It is the first time that North Korea made a request for help from the South,” he said. “It is positive that the North made such a request. That is a change. In the past, we made offers and the North just accepted them.”
Another Blue House official said it will take time for the Lee administration to decide whether it will grant the North’s request of aid or not. “The announcement won’t likely be made this week,” he said.
The official also echoed Lee’s remark about his awareness of public concern about the North Korea issue.
“Some believe the South must maintain its post-Cheonan attitude, while others want to see inter-Korean tensions eased,” he said. “We are not talking about a sudden change. The president means to find a long-term plan to reduce tensions.”
By Ser Myo-ja, Christine Kim [email@example.com]