Seoul releases aid funds for NorthThe Park Geun-hye administration will offer money from the state-operated Inter-Korean Cooperation Fund to North Korea through private aid groups for the first time in five years.
The decision appeared to be part of a rapprochement that began when North Korean leader Kim Jong-un suggested a summit with the South last week.
According to the Ministry of Unification, 13 civic groups will receive more than 3 billion won ($2.7 million) for 17 health, agricultural and livestock farming projects in the North. About 90,000 North Korean people are expected to benefit from the programs.
This will be the first time the fund has been used to assist groups’ relief programs in the North since Seoul imposed economic sanctions on Pyongyang in the aftermath of the North’s torpedoing of the South Korean warship Cheonan in 2010. Known as the May 24 measures, the sanctions bar all trade, investment and exchanges with the North.
“Including follow-up support for five North Korea relief projects that civic groups started last September, about 3 billion won from the Inter-Korean Cooperation Fund will be provided,” an official from the Unification Ministry said Monday.
Established in 1991, the Inter-Korean Cooperation Fund is a government-operated fund to assist the North.
In 2008, the Lee Myung-bak administration provided 24.1 billion won from the fund to private aid groups to carry out relief projects in the North and another 19.7 billion won to international organizations such as the and World Health Organization. In 2009, civic groups received 7.7 billion won from the fund, and international organizations received 27.1 billion won.
In 2010, the government provided 18.3 billion won directly to the North to assist its recovery from floods and 2.1 billion won to South Korean civic groups before the economic sanctions were issued. No money was provided to international organizations that year.
Starting in 2011, no civic groups received money from the Inter-Korean Cooperation Fund, while small amounts were offered to international organizations. In 2013, 13.3 billion won was spent to help the North through international aid organizations, and another 14.1 billion won was spent last year.
Another sign of Seoul’s changed attitude toward Pyongyang was seen Monday as the Unification Ministry revealed that a relief group had obtained government approval at the end of last year to send 20 tons of sweet potatoes to Sinuiju, North Korea. The aid, worth 52 million won, was the first unprocessed crops sent to the North since Park assumed the presidency in 2013.
The Park administration has barred sending grains to the North, fearing that humanitarian aid would be diverted to the military. Only processed cereals that can be used to produce food for pregnant women, infants and toddlers were allowed to be shipped to the North. The last batch of grain sent to the North was 1,000 tons of maize as part of the flood relief package in October 2010.
Lim Byeong-cheol, spokesman of the Unification Ministry, said the sweet potatoes were provided as nutritious meals for children. The government approved the shipment because the storage period of the crop is short, thus there is a low possibility of using it for military purposes, Lim said.
Lim, however, dismissed speculation that the Park government has lifted the ban on sending crops to the North.
The Park administration also created a new government team to oversee increasing North Korea aid projects operated by local governments.
“Starting in January, we created the Humanitarian Development and Cooperation Division in the Unification Ministry to oversee various aid projects,” said a government official. “Depending on the progress of inter-Korean relations, the government can show flexibility in its spending to assist the North.”
The government has already created a plan to use 1.24 trillion won of the Inter-Korean Cooperation Fund this year, up by 10 percent from last year. Of the sum, the budget for humanitarian assistance to the North was increased by 72 billion won.
As Seoul showed signs of engaging Pyongyang, North Korea on Monday continued to stress its intention to resume inter-Korean talks. The Rodong Sinmun, the mouthpiece of the Workers’ Party, said the two Koreas must actively engage in talks, negotiations and exchanges to restore severed ties and create a breakthrough in inter-Korean relations.
The newspaper also reiterated North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s New Year address, in which he said he is open to an inter-Korean summit.
The North still presented preconditions for resuming talks, including its usual demand that Korea-U.S. joint military exercises be ended.
The newspaper also said the South must respect the North’s ideology and its regime. The North urged the South to stop insulting its ideology and regime and to cease from having discussion with other countries to create a plot to harm the North.
The demands for respect appeared to be significant and linked to some of the Kim regime’s internal and external challenges.
The North is facing unprecedented pressure from the international community to improve its human rights situation after the United Nations adopted a resolution urging the Security Council to refer the leadership of the North - including Kim - to the International Criminal Court.
The Ministry of Unification said Monday that no contact was made between the two governments to resume dialogue.
BY SER MYO-JA [email@example.com]
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