Rice for North gets bipartisan push

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Rice for North gets bipartisan push

North Korea’s request for aid gained robust bipartisan support yesterday as ruling and opposition parties urged the Lee Myung-bak administration to provide humanitarian assistance to the flood-stricken communist country.

Calling North Korea’s request for rice and other materials an opportunity to thaw frozen inter-Korean relations, Grand National Party Chairman Ahn Sang-soo urged the government to grant the North’s appeal.

“The North requested rice, cement and heavy machinery for flood relief aid, and the assistance must be made from a humanitarian perspective with transparency,” Ahn said. “Some argue that the South’s poor must not be ignored, while others say that we should give rice aid to reduce inter-Korean tensions. But it is inappropriate to link the issues.”

Park Jie-won, the Democratic Party’s floor leader, urged the Lee administration to provide rice aid as soon as possible, and said that signs of changes in Lee’s North Korea policy were finally becoming visible.

Lee Hoi-chang, head of the conservative opposition Liberty Forward Party, also said humanitarian aid should be provided to the North, on the condition that it is delivered to flood victims transparently.

The unusual bipartisan support mounted as Seoul was reviewing Pyongyang’s request for flood relief aid. The North’s Red Cross asked its South Korean counterpart on Saturday for specific items - rice, heavy machinery and concrete - after the South had previously offered aid worth 10 billion won ($8.5 million) to help it recover from heavy rains at the end of last month. Floods likely killed dozens of people and forced tens of thousands to evacuate North Korean towns bordering China.

Unification Minister Hyun In-taek said yesterday in front of the National Assembly’s Foreign and Unification Affairs Committee that the government is positively considering sending the aid through the Red Cross.

Hyun also said the government will allow rights groups to send food aid to the flood victims, whether it is “maize, wheat flour or rice.”

“We, however, are not reviewing the option of massive government-to-government food aid,” Hyun said, distinguishing regular aid from emergency aid for flood victims.

The Lee administration suspended rice shipments to the North in 2008, linking aid to progress in talks to stop Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program. The two previous liberal administrations sent about 300,000 tons of rice every year between 2000 and 2007. Even when the North conducted a nuclear test in 2006, the South’s Red Cross provided 100,000 tons of rice as flood relief aid.

Even if the Lee administration decides to send aid, the amount will inevitably be smaller because the government has earmarked just 10 billion won for the flood aid.

According to the Ministry for Food, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, 1 ton of stockpiled South Korean rice produced in 2006 costs 960,000 won, which would allow the Red Cross to purchase about 10,416 tons with the 10 billion won budget.

If the South purchased cheaper Thai rice, up to 18,000 tons of rice could be purchased.

The amount of rice will be even smaller if Seoul sends cement and heavy machinery, too.

According to Kwon Tae-jin of the Korea Rural Economic Institute, the North produced about 4 million tons of grain last year, much less than the minimum of 5.2 million tons required to feed its population. He said natural disasters this year will shrink the harvest to about 3.9 million tons.

Meanwhile, four experts from the United Nations-led Food and Agriculture Organization and World Food Program will visit the North Sept. 21 to Oct. 2. to survey the country’s situation, the Voice of America reported yesterday.

By Ser Myo-ja [myoja@joongang.co.kr]
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