Scarcely more than a month after refusing to ship food and fertilizer to North Korea, South Korea is proffering "strictly humanitarian" aid to help rescue the North from flooding reminiscent of the disasters that preceded the famine of the late 1990s.
The decision to piece together an aid package totaling at least $60 million worth of food, medicine, and heavy equipment marks a significant climb-down from the seemingly irreconcilable positions of both North and South Korea after the North test-fired seven missiles in early July.
North Korea, having initially spurned an offer of aid by the South Korean Red Cross, faxed its plea through an inter-Korean committee, thanking the South and pleading for "cement and steel, construction vehicles, as well as food, blankets, and medicine." Three major storms hit the North last month, causing flooding that killed hundreds of people – 549, according to a pro-Pyongyang newspaper published in Tokyo. But a senior South Korean Red Cross official said the actual number of dead was probably much greater than the numbers reported so far.
South Korea's Unification Ministry, after having rejected North Korea's request for five hundred thousand tons of rice as well as fertilizer after the missile shots but before the flooding, responded eagerly to resume efforts at reconciliation despite US pressure to hold out for a return to six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear weapons.
In explaining the decision Friday, Shin Eon-sang, vice minister of unification, responsible for carrying on South Korea's relations with the North, stated bluntly, "The government has no expectations" of anything in return. The government's "emergency relief support," he said, was "strictly humanitarian."
While North Korea holds fast to its request for aid "with no preconditions," South Korean officials indicate the aid program may help restore a wide range of contacts that were either suspended or canceled in the weeks before and after the missile tests.
"The South Korean government is looking for opportunities to ameliorate the situation," says Paik Hak Soon, director of inter-Korean studies at the Sejong Institute, closely identified with the government's soft-line policies.
South Korea, says Mr. Paik, "sees the necessity of treating this inter-Korean relationship as a tool for dealing with problems like nuclear weapons and missiles." Such aid, he believes, "constitutes the foundation for inter-Korean dialogue, cooperation, and social relations."
The drive for reconciliation, though, arouses controversy here as conservatives gain strength while the left-of-center President Roh Moo Hyun, pressing to improve ties with North Korea while loosening the alliance with the US, steadily loses popularity.
"North Korea is behaving true to form," says Michael Breen, author of two books on Korean attitudes and problems. "North Korea is basically a beggar state but is very proud and doesn't feel like a beggar state. They make the donor feel grateful for giving."
The ups and downs of reconciliation efforts form a conundrum that divides South Koreans and puzzles analysts weighing the odds of war or peace in the region.
"Reconciliation is something that's not in the North Korean dictionary," says Peter Hyun, who fled to the South from North Korea before the Korean War and has written critically about North Korean rule. "Unless the donor is absolutely sure that the aid will be distributed to the starving peasants, we should not give it."
Mr. Hyun quotes recent North Korean escapees who said that North Korean soldiers, dressed in civilian clothes, load rice shipments at the west coast port of Nampo onto civilian trucks. "They carry them to their units or destinations unknown," he says, "and the starving people are still starving."
The mystery of North Korea deepens when it comes to its military program – and reports that it's actually building new missile bases while asking for aid after the floods last month.
"We are very worried in terms of our security," says Yun Duk Min, professor at the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security, affiliated with South Korea's foreign ministry. "They've developed new missiles and technology."
Mr. Yun, author of a recent study of North Korea's missile program, says the North has set up a missile command center while building launchpads along the east coast from which to fire short-range Scud and midrange Rodong missiles capable of hitting almost anywhere in Japan. These sites, says the study, are in addition to the one from which North Korea in early July test-fired seven missiles, including a long-range Taepodong 2. All the while, says Yun, the North is building more and better missiles, including a new kind of Rodong with a range between 1,500 and 2,500 miles, and short–range Frog missiles targeting bases in South Korea.
One thing is for sure, says Yun. "There's no freezing nuclear production" – the program for building warheads with plutonium at their core. But assessments of North Korea's strategy, orchestrated by its leader Kim Jong Il, are tricky. Mr. Kim disappeared from public view before the test-firing of the missiles and did not surface again until Sunday when Pyongyang's Korean Central News Agency reported he had visited an army stock breeding center accompanied by two generals.
He was quoted as saying it was possible to raise goats and rabbits in many parts of North Korea – a reflection of his concern about the North's problems feeding it's starving people.
In the North's quest for food, however, Mr. Breen, the writer, sees South Korea as the loser in the great bargaining game."South Koreans are looking for reconciliation," says Breen. "This brazen state refuses to cooperate, then asks for aid. In the tactical stuff, South Koreans get beaten every time."
• Wire services were used in this report.