Seoul approves private humanitarian aid to North

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Seoul approves private humanitarian aid to North

South Korea said yesterday that it is allowing a civilian group to resume humanitarian aid to North Korea for the first time since last November, when Pyongyang bombarded a South Korean island.

The Ministry of Unification has approved a request by the Eugene Bell Foundation to send tuberculosis medicine to the North, an official told reporters after reports of dire food shortages in the country.

The aid amounts to 336 million won ($305,000), the ministry official said, adding that the government plans to continue considering other humanitarian aid requests.

Aid has been halted since North Korea shelled the western island of Yeonpyeong in November, killing four people including two civilians.

The approval announced Thursday comes after the United Nations said about 6 million people in North Korea are in need of 430,000 tons of food aid.

“There have been opinions that at least civic groups should be allowed to send aid to North Korea,” the ministry official said. “The government has taken these factors into account.”

Meanwhile, the World Food Programme plans to announce in two weeks a series of concrete humanitarian steps the international community should take in a bid to ease the continuing food crisis in North Korea, its top Asian official has said.

Kenro Oshidari, regional director for Asia, said in an interview Wednesday with Yonhap News Agency that North Korea needs “a little over 1 million tons” more food than what it currently has in order to feed its people.

His comments come after a trio of UN agencies - the WFP, the Food and Agriculture Organization and Unicef - said in a joint report this week that North Korea needs 434,000 tons of outside food aid to support its most vulnerable groups, which include children, pregnant women and nursing mothers.

“Even if we came in with donor support to provide 400,000 tons or so of humanitarian assistance, there’s 600,000 tons that the government has to, either commercially or from bilateral assistance, secure,” Oshidari said. “North Korea suffered a very harsh winter.”

North Korea, which has relied heavily on international handouts since a massive famine swept the country in the mid-1990s, has seen little food assistance from its southern neighbor since 2008.

International assistance has also dried up in the wake of a series of nuclear and missiles tests Pyongyang conducted in defiance of warnings.

Critics also say the North may also be hoarding food ahead of 2012, during which it plans to celebrate the centennial of the birth of its late founder, Kim Il Sung.

“Arithmetically, I can’t see how it is feasible to stock up any food from the exterior,” Oshidari said, citing field observations and data that his organization has procured from various countries.

Pledging to demand “maximum monitoring” should food aid resume to North Korea, Oshidari said the WFP is in the midst of finalizing a proposal for international assistance.

“We are in the process of right now getting the details down, devising the plan of how many people exactly we should be assisting, how much food it takes, what kind of food would be most suitable,” he said.

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