Seoul signs off on $8M in aid

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Seoul signs off on $8M in aid

South Korea Wednesday set into motion a donation of $8 million to the World Food Programme (WPF) and Unicef for emergency nutritional and medical assistance to North Korea.

The Inter-Korean Exchange and Cooperation Promotion Council, an inter-ministerial body under the South’s Unification Ministry, voted Wednesday afternoon to approve a plan to pull the donations from the inter-Korean cooperation fund, Seoul’s 1.5 trillion won ($1.2 billion) fund maintained to provide financial support for cross-border exchanges.

Unification Minister Kim Yeon-chul signed off on the aid, which will be transferred to the two organizations’ accounts within the next three or four days, according to a senior ministry official.

Around $4.5 million will go to the WFP, which will use the money to supply fortified biscuits or cereals to children or pregnant women through distribution centers it has in places like nurseries, orphanages and children’s hospitals in 60 counties across the country’s nine provinces.

The remaining $3.5 million will go to Unicef, which announced last month that it had been granted sanctions exemption to conduct relief programs worth $5.75 million. Welcoming Seoul’s donation, a Unicef spokesman said the money would be used to provide medical assistance like antibiotics to around 2.8 million people in the North, according to a Voice of America report.

This aid package, the biggest steps Seoul has taken recently to breaking the logjam in diplomatic engagement with Pyongyang, was formalized by the Blue House last month in response to a new UN and WPF report indicating a massive food shortage in the North.

After on-site visits to the country in April and last November, the two organizations said around 10.1 million people - 40 percent of the population - suffer from severe food shortages as a result of a bad harvest last year.

In May, the Moon Jae-in administration canvassed public opinion on the aid plan through consultations with experts, civic groups and religious leaders.

The public, however, remains lukewarm to the idea, with over half of respondents in recent polls saying the government should not help the North after its recent provocations in the form of short-range missile tests last month.

In Seoul’s insistence on sending the aid, which its officials stress is for humanitarian purposes, Pyongyang itself has not welcomed it and has said through its state media it would rather have economic cooperation.

Yet the hard face the North has put on toward the South masks a need suggested by its reported requests for aid from its traditional partners, China and Russia.

According to a JoongAng Ilbo report last month, China reportedly gave the North a shipment of food aid last July following North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s three visits to the country last year, amounting to around one million kilograms (1,102 tons) of rice worth around $1 million. Russia, too, delivered an unspecified amount of wheat to the North via the WFP in April, possibly as part of a bigger aid package of 50,000 tons of wheat Moscow announced it was considering.

Sources on Tuesday told the JoongAng Ilbo that the North also requested food aid from Vietnam during Kim Jong-un’s visit to Hanoi for his second summit with U.S. President Donald Trump in February.

“The summit with the United States fell apart in Hanoi, but North Korea was able to hold a summit and improve its diplomatic relations with Vietnam,” said one source familiar with the visit on the condition of anonymity. “At the time, the North is believed to have requested around 300,000 tons of food aid from Vietnam in the form of a loan.”

The source added that given Kim’s status as supreme leader, it is believed the aid request came not from him but from another high-ranking figure in the North Korean government, though the source did not reveal who. “The Vietnamese side reportedly expressed a positive response, though no such support has materialized so far.

Independently of Seoul’s $8 million package - identical to the amount South Korea promised to the WFP and Unicef in September 2017 - the Moon government is considering shipping food directly to the North in order to feed a greater population. Yet the logistical and political obstacles presented by international sanctions on the North’s economy casts doubt on that proposal’s viability.

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