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North Korea refuses Seoul’s flood aid offer

Publication Date : 13-09-2012

 

North Korea on Wednesday refused South Korea’s offer of flood relief aid, crushing emerging hopes for a thaw in tense relations between the two Koreas.

The North changed its position only two days after expressing its intention to accept Seoul’s proposal for assistance made on September 3.

The Unification Ministry said it sent a list of items for shipment Tuesday including 10,000 tonnes of flour, 3 million packets of noodles, and medical equipment.

The North sent a letter on Wednesday afternoon saying, “Such an assistance is not necessary,” according to the ministry.

“It is regrettable. But we will continue with general humanitarian assistance for the North regardless of political and military situations,” a ministry official said.

Accepting Seoul’s offer on Monday, the North requested the types and quantity of items to be shipped. Pyongyang is believed to want rice, cement and heavy equipment for reconstruction work, which Seoul worries that the regime may divert for military and other unintended uses.

The North’s letter is thought to indicate an attempt to pressure the South, with a sentence saying that “incidents similar to those of last year must not occur”.

Last year, the ministry planned a relief programme worth 5 billion won (US$4.4 million), which chiefly consisted of medical kits and necessities including nutritious meals for infants and toddlers, snacks and ramen. The deal was tossed out after the South rejected the North’s demand for a larger package to include repair machines.

In 2010, the ministry agreed to a 10 billion won package including 5,000 tonnes of rice, 10,000 tonnes of cement and 3 million packets of instant noodles. It shipped all but 7,000 tonnes of cement as the project came to a halt in the wake of the North’s artillery shelling on a South Korean border island in the West Sea that year.

Observers had been keen on the developments of flood aid as it raised hopes for the two governments holding the first contact since the North’s defiant rocket launch in April.

The ministry in charge of inter-Korean affairs has been calling for talks on the resumption of reunions of separated families and tours to Mount Geumgang.

If the agreement had been materialised, it would have marked Seoul’s first official handout in two years, though civic groups have been allowed to provide relief.

The ministry approved last week an application from World Vision, a Christian aid group, to send 500 tonnes of flour to North Korean flood victims.

On Wednesday, it approved another 500-tonne flour package by Join Together Society Korea, a non-profit relief organisation.

The North’s state news agency reported that floods in June and July left 569 people dead or missing and swept away or inundated 65,280 hectares of farmland. Two powerful typhoons, which pummeled the peninsula at the end of last month, killed another 176, forced 220,000 out on the streets and damaged at least 50,000 hectares of cropland.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has shown some signs of change toward economic reform and openness to the outside world.

“On the surface, the North should feel the practical need for help because of the acute flood damage,” said Lee Seung-reol, a North Korea specialist at Ewha Womans University in Seoul.

“But more importantly, it shows how flexible the North has grown since the recent elite shakeup including the sacking of General Staff Chief Ri Yong-ho. It means the North could be willing to put away pride and ease the military-first policy’s rigidity for the benefit of the economy.”

The July ouster of Ri, a hardline military big shot and one of Kim Jong-il’s loyal aides, stunned observers, who saw it as part of the new leader’s efforts to dilute the influence of the powerful, rigid military in his state governance.

In recent months, the communist regime has hardened its line against the South, vowing not to associate with the conservative government of Lee Myung-bak.

It bombarded the country with sharp words for not allowing mourners to attend the December funeral of late leader Kim Jong-il, condemning its botched rocket launch and conducting joint drills with the US in the West Sea.

The Lee Myung-bak administration faces a dilemma between better cross-border ties and its long-kept principles that premise the North’s apologies for its hostile acts and denuclearization efforts before reconciliation.

“The South’s government is in a perplexing situation as a result of its colligation of humanitarian assistance with inter-Korean relations,” said Hong Hyun-ik, a senior researcher at Sejong Institute.

“Rogue or not, North Korea is a government. The relationship between the two governments cannot solely be swayed by humanitarian purposes but has rather assumed the aspect of a political game. The South should have kept humanitarian aid independent from swings in the game.”

He expected the ministry to offer a quite lucrative deal to barter for a new gathering for separated families in time for the Chuseok holiday, which falls on the last weekend of September.

“Amid this ongoing battle of nerves, I think the North will come forward if the South delves into truly ‘pragmatic’ politics, though its tenure is entering its last few months. It’s time to stop focusing the blame on the North, which is a loss to both countries strategically and economically,” he told The Korea Herald.

 

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