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.

Im Chung/Yonhap/Reuters
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.

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.

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.

What about the North's nuclear weapons program?

While the vessels were waiting to depart, Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency issued an unusually strong statement that appeared to rule out any chance of the North’s relinquishing its nuclear weapons program.

Calling the program “a treasured sword,” the commentary said the North had to have “access to nuclear deterrent legitimately to protect the sovereignty and security of the country.” It was for that reason, it said, that North Korea had withdrawn from the nuclear nonproliferation treaty seven years ago.

The commentary was seen here as a possible prelude to a third nuclear test. The US has warned North Korea against conducting another test after spy satellites saw signs of intense activity around the North’s main nuclear complex at Yongbyon, 90 miles north of Pyongyang. North Korea exploded nuclear devices underground in October 2006 and again in May 2009 and is believed to have the makings of a dozen nuclear warheads.

Signs of reconciliation?

There have, however, also been signs of reconciliation.

North Korea has expressed willingness to return to six-party talks on its nuclear program, last held in Beijing in December 2008. “North Korea needs honorable relations with the South,” says Mr. Paik.

In another sign of a desire on both sides to ease tensions, South Korean defense officials said Monday there would be no more naval exercises involving the US aircraft carrier the George Washington this year. The carrier has not entered the Yellow Sea since the South Korean navy corvette the Cheonan was torpedoed in March with a loss of 46 sailors.

US and South Korean exercises have evoked harsh rhetoric from North Korea as well as complaints from China, the North’s close ally and benefactor from the outset of the Korean War. A Chinese military delegation visited North Korea over the weekend, marking the 60th anniversary of China’s entry in the war in which China’s “volunteers” in late 1950 drove US and South Korean forces from the North.

North Korean vice marshal Ri Yong-ho harked back to that period as he spoke of the North’s friendship with China, “sealed in blood,” as reported by the Korean Central News Agency, in “a heroic war of resistance against the US imperialist aggressors, the common enemy.”

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