Seoul to send Pyongyang rice aid

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Seoul to send Pyongyang rice aid

South Korea will send 50,000 tons of domestically produced rice as humanitarian aid to North Korea through the World Food Programme (WFP), according to the Unification Ministry on Wednesday.

The food aid package, which is believed to be worth around 27 billion won ($22.9 million), follows Seoul’s donation of $8 million won to the WFP and Unicef earlier this month, which is to be used for emergency nutritional and medical assistance for children and pregnant women in the North.

This will be the first time in nine years for South Korea to send rice to the North and the first time rice harvested from South Korean paddies will be provided to Pyongyang through the WFP. On earlier occasions when Seoul went through the WFP, its aid packages largely consisted of corn, mixed grains or flour.

“The government hopes that the food it provides through the WFP rapidly makes it into the hands of the North Korean people,” read a Unification Ministry press release. “The timing and amount of any further food aid to North Korea will be decided after the results of this assistance package are monitored.”

In a briefing on Wednesday, Unification Minister Kim Yeon-chul said the rice could be transferred by sea to the North once it is milled and consultations have been made over logistics. Funding for the aid would be drawn from the Inter-Korean exchange and cooperation fund, part of the approximately 81.5 billion won that have been earmarked in total for humanitarian assistance projects.

After receiving a request from the WFP in early May about the serious food crisis in the North, Seoul had been mulling whether to send food aid directly to Pyongyang or go through international organizations.

Its monetary donation to the WFP and Unicef on June 6 was undertaken after weeks of assessing public opinion through consultations with experts and civic groups, though general public reception to the assistance was lukewarm. This, as well as concerns over expediency, led the government to opt to go through the WFP.

According to a joint United Nations (UN) Food and Agriculture Organization and WFP report published after two on-site visits to North Korea, around 10.1 million people - or 40 percent of the population - suffer from severe food shortages due to irregular weather patterns and a bad harvest last year.

Pyongyang itself requested humanitarian assistance from the UN through its mission in New York, claiming it faced a food deficit of around 1.48 million metric tons. The UN and WFP report also stressed the urgency for humanitarian assistance, given stocks were almost depleted throughout the lean season, lasting approximately from May to September.

Through its press release, the Unification Ministry stressed that while Seoul’s aid would not be enough to resolve the North’s food crisis, it would at least alleviate some of its food problems. The decision to send domestically produced rice over imported varieties, it added, was undertaken due to its symbolic value as a means to show ethnic solidarity. Civic groups representing domestic rice producers also supported the decision, the release said, since South Korea’s surplus rice stocks amounted to 1.18 million tons as of May and continue to incur maintenance costs. The ministry also stressed the transparency of the humanitarian assistance plan through the WFP, saying that the organization enforced strict monitoring in terms of the aid package’s distribution to those in need in North Korea. Concerns that the aid package could damage the international sanctions regime on the North’s economy are also unfounded, the release said, as the UN resolutions that imposed the sanctions allow for exemptions when it comes to humanitarian aid.

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