[Viewpoint] Giving the North rice may be wise

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[Viewpoint] Giving the North rice may be wise

Domestic farming groups, sitting on stockpiles of surplus rice, turned hopeful on the news that North Korea was requesting rice aid from South Korea. By the end of October, South Korea’s rice reserves would have reached 1.49 million tons, double the amount recommended by the Food and Agricultural Organization.

Rice prices plunged to 132,500 won ($114) per 80 kilograms (176 pounds) in August from 151,400 won a year ago. In May, frustrated farmers rallied in front of the National Assembly in Yeouido, demanding government measures to halt the decline in rice prices. The central and local governments also have to worry about running out of silos to store the swelling supplies of rice. Storing the rice surplus costs state and local governments nearly 400 billion won a year.

The ruling party has good reasons to suggest the resumption of rice aid to North Korea even though cross-border ties have been severed following the North’s attack on the South Korean naval ship Cheonan in March.

The agriculture ministry announced in late August “ingenious” measures to solve the rice glut. It plans to boost supply of rice-based products, including rice cakes, bread, biscuits, liquor, and tteokbokki snacks, as well as providing rice to food processors. It will promote the sales of cooking tools for rice meals and set up rice flour snack corners in large grocery stores.

What it boils down to is asking children to show compassion for farmers by eating as many rice snacks as possible and encouraging adults to drink rice liquor.

While South Korea battles with excess, our impoverished neighbors in the North face dire shortages of food.

According to South Korea’s agriculture promotion agency, North Korea’s farm production is estimated to total 4.11 million tons during the latest crop year from November 2009 to October 2010. This is more than one million tons fewer than the 5.2 million tons of grain needed to feed the country’s population. Moreover, recent floods have wiped out some of the country’s crop beds, which would further reduce production by more than 200,000 tons in the next crop year.

No matter how strong Kim Jong-il believes himself to be, he cannot leave his people to go on starving. If it hadn’t been for the fallout from the Cheonan sinking, North Korea would have sent an S?O?S to South Korea a long time before now. It suggests a lot that North Korea is suddenly turning submissive and asking for help.

If Kim came up with the idea of seeking aid from South Korea after his recent visit to China, we may even anticipate a breakthrough in the frozen bilateral relations. Asahi Shimbun editor in chief Yoichi Funabashi, upon returning from China, believes Kim promised Beijing leaders that Pyongyang will act more flexibility toward South Korea and the United States.

It may be an overstatement to say that North Korea’s latest aid request for rice and heavy equipment suggests a turning point in the recalcitrant country’s policy toward South Korea. But it can be a start. To transfer the rice supplies, Red Cross officials from both sides would have to meet. The Red Cross meeting could lead to government-level meetings. The exchange of table tennis players between the U.S. and China paved the way for U.S. President Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China in the early 1970s.

President Lee Myung-bak said the government will study the North’s request for rice aid with discretion as the “thoughtful and wise” South Korean people will be watching. He cited a poll that showed 40 percent of the public believes giving aid at this stage is premature. But we must ask how credible the poll is. In addition, another 40 percent said they sympathized with the need for humanitarian aid.

If there is urgent and necessary reason, the president must try to persuade the people to accept the idea of providing aid. Giving rice may or may not provide a breakthrough in inter-Korean relations. But we’ll never know unless we take the opportunity. A rigid and narrow view that North Korea will never change won’t be of much help amidst rapidly changing circumstances on the peninsula.

Except for 2001 and 2006, South Korea had supplied between 300,000 and 500,000 tons of rice to North Korea annually from 2000 to 2007. Under the agreed terms, North Korea would have to pay back for the rice in 20 years after a 10 year grace period, which means it must start paying for the rice supplies it received in the year 2000 this October. But North Korea cannot afford to do so and South Korea knows this.

The U.S. has slapped new tougher sanctions against North Korea. And Seoul wants a formal apology from Pyongyang over the attack against the Cheonan to resume economic ties. Under these circumstances, it is uncertain when South Korea could resume aid to the North.

But the provision of aid at this stage could help ease tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

The government should not hesitate too long.

Instead of waiting for an apology, we can offer to help the country during its difficult times and demand an apology later.

*The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Kim Young-hie
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