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South Korea sends first aid to North Korea in nearly three years

South Korea sent 5,000 tons of aid to North Korea, a step away from recent confrontational rhetoric. But it's a tiny fraction of the 500,000 sent annually under the Sunshine Policy.

By Donald KirkCorrespondent / October 25, 2010

Workers load packs of rice as food aid for flood-stricken North Koreans onto a ship at a port in Gunsan, about 168 miles south of Seoul, Oct. 22. South Korea sent 5,000 tons of rice to North Korea, on Oct. 25.

Im Chung/Yonhap/Reuters

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Seoul, South Korea

A pair of freighters sailed Monday night from South Korean ports bearing the government's first donation of food for North Korea since the decade of the Sunshine policy of reconciliation when South Korea annually shipped hundreds of thousands of tons of food and fertilizer to the impoverished North.

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Those shipments stopped at the end of 2007 after the conservative Lee Myung-Bak defeated a liberal candidate for president in a backlash against leftist-led economic policies and gestures toward the North that conservatives saw as doing little to overcome tensions.

How far the donations by the South’s conservative government will go toward improving frayed North-South Korean relations, however, remains uncertain. North Korea noted earlier that that the shipments of 5,000 tons of rice and 3 million packs of instant noodles was a tiny fraction of at least 500,000 tons shipped annually to the North before Lee’s inauguration as president in February 2008.

The relatively small size of the shipments, “signifies the reluctance of the Korean government to give aid to North Korea,” says Paik Hak-soon, director of North Korean studies at the Sekong Institute, which carries out research projects for the government. “It’s important to capture this opportunity for good relations with North Korea.”

Two ships laden with food were headed to the Chinese city of Dandong, a large trading center near the mouth of the Yalu river across from Sinuiju, a regional North Korean city hit hard by floods over the past two months. A third ship carrying 10,000 tons of cement needed to repair roads and other facilities wiped out by floods is slated to leave in the coming days.

Mr. Lee approved the shipments strictly for “humanitarian” reasons after having refused to provide aid until the North showed signs of getting rid of its nuclear weapons programs, as agreed in 2007 after protracted six-party talks hosted by China. The decision to authorize the shipment came after nongovernmental donors were permitted, in a token gesture, to send approximately two hundred tons of aid across the border by land last month.

This week's shipment comes at a time in which North Korea has mingled signs of reconciliation with statements of defiance that suggest no real breakthrough is imminent.

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