Has South Korea hardened its stance on helping its northern neighbor?

A spokesman for the South's Unification Ministry said it is unlikely the country will provide humanitarian aid to North Korea, even though a United Nations agency has asked for millions of dollars to fund flood relief.  

Kim Kwang Hyon/AP
Workers repair the flood-damaged train track between Sinjon and Kanphyong train stations in North Hamgyong Province, North Korea, on Sept. 16, 2016. South Korea said it's unlikely it will help its northern neighbor following the North's fifth nuclear test earlier this month.

It’s unlikely South Korea will provide humanitarian aid to North Koreans in response to historic floods brought on by torrential rains last month, even if the totalitarian country asks for help, a spokesman for the South’s Unification Ministry said in a news conference Monday.

The comments by Jeong Joon-hee, the ministry spokesman, are a sign of the government’s increasing agitation over the North’s nuclear program. It conducted its fifth nuclear test Sept. 9, about a week after the floods brought on by typhoon Lionrock.

“It should have spent the massive expenses not in a nuclear test, but in helping its people recover from the flood damage,” said Mr. Jeong.  

South Korea’s stance on humanitarian aid marks a shift by President Park Geun-hye since she took office in 2013. At that time, she attempted to blend the hard-line attitude of her predecessor, Lee Myung-bak, who said that closer ties would be impossible without an end to the North's nuclear program, with a “trust building process.” But as the North has continued with its nuclear program, defying international sanctions and prioritizing military spending over the needs of its people, the South and much of the world have struggled over how to respond. 

“What you’re seeing in the South Korean statement is an expression of the frustration of a lot of people,” says Troy Stangarone, senior director of congressional affairs and trade at the Korea Economic Institute of America, a think tank in Washington D.C. “North Korea has advanced its nuclear program, but doesn’t seem to be concerned with the welfare of its populace. If something does happen, it expects the international community to provide the resources it needs.”

“The government is not following through on its responsibilities to provide for its people,” Mr. Stangarone tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview Monday.

The flooding brought on by typhoon Lionrock on Aug. 29 devastated North Korea’s border with China, the poorest region of the country. In what the North Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said were the “heaviest downpours” since 1945, 133 people were killed, 395 are missing, and more than 35,500 houses and 8,700 schools and other buildings were damaged, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Nearly 40,000 acres of arable land were damaged just before the harvest and the start of winter. About 600,000 people have also lost access to safe water and other basic services, according to the UN.

The UN World Food Program said last week it delivered emergency food to the region, including fortified biscuits and beans it diverted from local factories it operates to feed children and pregnant and nursing mothers. But the UN has said that isn’t enough. It has asked for $1.2 million to replenish the supplies for the women and children, according to The New York Times. Overall, the agency said it would need $21 million to help people in North Korea until August 2017.

Meanwhile, Jeong, the South’s ministry spokesman, said the North has not asked for South Korean help.  

“And we don’t expect it to,” he said. “Even if it does, I think, given the present situation, that the possibility of providing aid is low.”

Throughout most of the modern history of the Korean Peninsula, the South has turned a cold shoulder to the North. But in 1998, then-South President Kim Dae-jung famously instituted his “sunshine policy,” which aimed to encourage interaction and economic assistance, and under which the South agreed to provide unconditional humanitarian aid to the North when it needed it. Mr. Kim’s successor, Roh Moo-hyun, continued this policy, even as the North threatened its southern neighbor with missiles on the eve of his 2003 inauguration.

When Lee Myung-bak assumed office in 2007, he adopted a tougher approach. He demanded North Korean engagement (including humanitarian aid) be accompanied by nuclear disarmament progress. During Mr. Lee’s term, the North responded with more nuclear and ballistic missiles tests, including two incidents that left 50 South Koreans dead in 2010. Following one of the incidents on Yeongpyeong Island, in which two soldiers and two civilians were killed, public opinion also shifted against providing any humanitarian aid to the North.

Park, when she was elected in 2013, promised to combine the hard tactics of her predecessor with a more sympathetic touch.

“We need to keep a balance between the carrot and the stick, security and exchanges,” South Korea’s Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae told reporters at the time. “We would like to take some time to unravel the problem step by step and hopefully strike up a relationship.”

But North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un has still moved forward with his nuclear and weapons programs, conducting two nuclear tests in this year alone.

Humanitarian groups say North Korea has prioritized investing in its military over feeding its citizens. This is problematic, they say, because the country socialized its agriculture, and its landscape is cold and mountainous. Moreover, unlike China, South Korea, and Japan, North Korea does not import bulk grain.  

South Korea is not alone in this challenge over how much humanitarian aid to provide North Korea and when. The United States provides some humanitarian assistance to North Korea during natural disasters and famines, but offers virtually no economic aid. Other potential global donors have shown reluctance to offer aid because it's unclear if it will reach the people of the hardest-hit regions, as North Korea has imposed conditions on international donors' abilities to monitor aid. 

The US, South Korea, and Japan also spoke Sunday in New York about imposing tougher sanctions on the Hermit Kingdom for its latest nuclear test.

Humanitarians are faced with this ethical conundrum, too.

Marcus Noland, director of studies at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, summed it up in a contribution to The Guardian in 2014.  

“We evidently care more about hungry North Koreans than their government does,” he said. “We should provide assistance. But we should be clear-eyed about the terms of that engagement and seek to provide aid in ways consistent with our values and our obligations under international law.”

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