North rejects South’s food aid over joint military drills

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North rejects South’s food aid over joint military drills

North Korea rejected Seoul’s offer to donate rice through the World Food Programme (WFP) in protest over joint military exercises between South Korea and the United States, according to the South’s Unification Ministry on Wednesday.

An official at the ministry said that while Pyongyang’s refusal to take 50,000 metric tons (55,115 tons) of rice from the South is not yet definitive, North Korean Foreign Ministry officials expressed “negative tendencies” toward the aid during working level talks with WFP officials. Seoul announced last month it would dispatch domestically grown rice to the North through the WFP as part of a humanitarian relief effort in response to the country’s growing food insecurity. The government had planned to launch its first shipment of aid to the North at the end of this month, followed by subsequent deliveries until September.

This plan now looks unlikely as a result of Pyongyang’s public remonstrations against Seoul and Washington’s joint command post drills, called 19-2 Dong Maeng. Last week, the North’s Foreign Ministry condemned the drills, saying they could affect denuclearization talks with Washington.

The Unification Ministry official said Seoul only recently learned of the North’s disapproval toward the aid through the WFP, and added that attempts would be made to glean Pyongyang’s official stance through other channels. Until confirmation is made, the shipments are likely to stay within South Korea.

Pyongyang’s rebuff of help from Seoul, coming amid its worst harvest in a decade, suggests it may be demanding a halt to the joint exercises in return for an improvement in inter-Korean and U.S.-North Korea relations. Through last week’s statements, the North claimed U.S. President Donald Trump’s promised North Korean leader Kim Jong-un the drills would stop during their snap meeting at the demilitarized zone last month. To assist diplomatic engagement with the North, which considers the allies’ biannual drills as rehearsals for war, Washington and Seoul last year decided to abolish the allies’ Key Resolve exercises and replace them with the scaled down Dong Maeng exercise that kicked off for the first time this March.

The planned command post exercise scheduled for three weeks from early August has been dubbed 19-2 Dong Maeng, with the March drills unofficially called 19-1, though South Korean and U.S. officials are considering giving it a different name so as not to provoke the North. Along with the South’s aid plan, offers made by Washington to resume working level denuclearization negotiations have also been met with no official response from the North, despite the two parties agreeing to hold such talks at the June 30 summit. Trump, however, said on Monday that his administration has had “very positive correspondence recently” with the North, and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in an interview that day that behind-the-scene conversations were continuing with Pyongyang. A more definitive response to both the working level talks and the aid offer may surface from the North at the upcoming Asean Regional Forum scheduled to be held at Bangkok, Thailand, from August 1 to 3. But if the allies remain fixed on following through with their military drills, Pyongyang may resolve to continue on its path of recalcitrance.

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