Food aid goes ahead but poses some challenges

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Food aid goes ahead but poses some challenges

Though Seoul is preparing to ship food aid to North Korea, economic sanctions and public opinion remain major impediments in its drive to use the assistance as a way to revive the stalled denuclearization negotiations between Pyongyang and Washington.

“The issue of food should be considered in humanitarian terms, particularly as [we] are one nation, independent of security issues,” said Chung Eui-yong, the presidential national security adviser, in a press conference Friday morning.

“The government has already established its principle of providing food aid to the North and is currently undergoing diverse preparations on the specifics of how the assistance should be pursued.”

Friday afternoon, the Blue House announced it would first supply $8 million in nutritional aid to children and pregnant women in North Korea via international organizations before undertaking a larger initiative to send aid in the form of rice or other crops.

The decision to send the aid through international organizations - like the World Food Programme (WFP) and Unicef - which was welcomed by the WFP on Saturday, was partly prompted by concerns about a direct government-to-government transfer of food.

In past instances when the South gave the North food aid, Seoul largely transferred its shipments by sea. Yet economic sanctions on the North require that such a shipment be approved by the United States, and Seoul’s own sanctions prohibit foreign ships from entering South Korean ports for half a year after visiting the North.

Shipping firms have been reluctant to enter North Korean harbors in case they are accused of violating sanctions and because of the difficulties they face in obtaining marine insurance - a necessity in the transshipment of cargo.

According to one government source in Seoul, a variety of logistical difficulties are expected in sending the aid as naval sanctions on the North have proved quite effective.

Another concern for the administration is how the aid package is perceived domestically. While the Unification Ministry is currently canvassing public opinion on the matter through civic organizations and religious leaders, recent polls show a slight majority of the general public prefers not to send food to Pyongyang.

The financing for the aid package is expected to be drawn from inter-Korean cooperation funds, which in 2019 amounted to around 1.1 trillion won ($920.7 billion).

The amount allocated for humanitarian endeavors in the fund is around 81.5 billion won, but the legislature would have to be notified of any use of this fund, and parties are split over the aid plan.

To bridge the divide, President Moon Jae-in is pushing for consultative talks among the administration, the ruling party and four opposition parties in the legislature to discuss various issues including the aid plans, but conservative parties like the main opposition Liberty Korea Party have openly voiced opposition to the plan. If the North undertakes another military provocation while arrangements are being made, the Blue House is expected to face withering criticism.

The plan has not even been welcomed by the North itself, whose state media on Sunday issued its latest criticism of food aid. An editorial published in the Rodong Sinmun claimed aid was an “act of theft designed to give one and take 10,” stressing the importance of self-reliance in the face of continued economic difficulties and food insecurity.

While the piece did not refer to the South’s plan directly, it brought up precedents such as Togo and Mozambique, where their governments received food aid from the West but in return became economically dependent on their beneficiaries.

Sunday’s editorial also echoed a lengthy Foreign Ministry statement Pyongyang released on Thursday condemning international sanctions on the North. Earlier, state media had slammed humanitarian efforts from the South as “acts lacking respect and ethics.”

Part of the reason the North remains unreceptive to the South’s food aid in spite of its current difficulties could be its relationship with China.

The JoongAng Ilbo on Sunday found evidence that China gave North Korea a shipment of food aid last July following North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s three visits to the country in March, May and June. The aid package amounted to around 1 million kilograms (2.2 million pounds) of rice, reportedly worth around $1.02 million, as well as 162,000 tons of fertilizer worth around $55 million.

With Chinese President Xi Jinping reportedly set to visit the North as early as this month, Pyongyang may be expecting another major aid package from Beijing that could possibly surpass last year’s.

BY SHIM KYU-SEOK, CHA SE-HYEON AND BAEK MIN-JEONG [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]

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