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N. Korea flood aid

Publication Date : 10-08-2012


Seoul officials might have felt somewhat embarrassed by Vietnam’s reported commitment to donate 5,000 tons of rice to flood-hit North Korea. Making the pledge in his meeting with North Korea’s visiting nominal head of state Kim Yong-nam on Monday, Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang expressed his “deep sympathy” for the deaths and property damage caused by the flooding. Pyongyang’s official news agency said last Saturday floods in the North had killed 169 people since late June, with about 400 missing and around 212,000 homeless.

A day earlier, Seoul’s Unification Ministry said it was not considering offering aid to the North, but reiterated that there had been no change in its policy of helping vulnerable North Koreans on purely humanitarian grounds if necessary.

South Korea is unlikely to extend a helping hand to North Korea unless Pyongyang makes a request. The administration of President Lee Myung-bak, which has emphasised reciprocity in inter-Korean ties, seems to be in no mood to initiate the offer as the North has maintained a hostile stance.

The South also has an unpleasant memory of the North rebuffing its proposal of flood assistance worth 5 billion won (US$4.43 million) last year as too small to accept.

But Seoul officials seem to find it increasingly awkward to remain indifferent as international agencies and aid groups are moving to help North Korean flood victims.

Departing from its past stance, North Korea has been active in updating casualty figures and appealing for assistance from the outside world. It allowed UN officials based in Pyongyang to visit the worst-hit areas to make an on-site assessment.

Some officials here suspect North Korea might be exaggerating flood damage to draw more aid from the international community. An unidentified government official was even quoted by a local daily as saying that Pyongyang appears to be trying to boost the image of openness under its young new leader Kim Jong-un through the active campaign for foreign assistance.

This view might be overstretched, though it is difficult at present to assess the longer-term impact of the flooding on food supplies in the North.

A UN report based on the on-site inspection, which was released last week, called for immediate assistance for the flood victims. Some agencies of the global body, including the World Food Program and the UN Children’s Fund, and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies have undertaken work to send emergency aid to help the victims. US officials have also made remarks that can be interpreted as suggesting the possibility of providing flood assistance for North Korea on humanitarian grounds.

The Lee administration is advised not to be too late in proposing emergency aid to the North to avoid falling out of step with the pace of international relief movement. There might be little room for considering reciprocity in offering assistance to help protect flood victims from hunger and disease. The blame would go only to Pyongyang if it rejects Seoul’s proposal again for the same reason as last year.

This measure would also help form a favourable atmosphere for handling another humanitarian issue between the two Koreas ― the reunion of separated families, which has been suspended since 2010 amid the frozen inter-Korean ties. President Lee is expected to propose resuming the family reunion in his August 15 Liberation Day speech.

Amid improved circumstances, South and North Korea would be able to work together to cope with widespread deforestation in the North, which has made it prone to severe flooding.

During his talks with the Vietnamese leader, the North Korean official was quoted as saying the rice donation would help his people overcome their difficulties. Beyond the remarks of gratitude, North Korea should learn from its former communist ally’s reform efforts, which has transformed Vietnam from a rice importer to the world’s second-largest rice exporter over the past two decades while possibly millions of North Koreans have starved to death.


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