South Korea said Thursday it would send $20m worth of food to North Korea through the United Nations’ World Food Programme, the first time it will have given aid through the agency in three years.
The donation is significant because it marks at least a partial return to aid whose distribution can be monitored after it arrives in North Korea, almost two years after South Korea decided to give food directly – and without conditions – to the North Korean government.
That move was credited with causing the eviction of international humanitarian agencies that demand to check that aid is reaching needy recipients.
But Lee Jae-joung, the South’s unification minister, said the new aid was entirely separate from the 400,000 tonnes of rice that the South pledged to “lend” to the North following a denuclearisation deal signed in February.
“The government has accepted the latest request from WFP and decided to provide the aid... given the acute food problem in North Korea and the repeated aid requests from the international organisation,” Mr Lee told reporters on Thursday.
Seoul will discuss the composition of the list with the WFP but “plans to respect” the agency’s latest request for 44,000 tonnes of food, including corn, beans, wheat, flour and powdered milk.
South Korea suspended all humanitarian aid to the North following last July’s missile tests, although it has recently resumed shipments of fertiliser and has decided to send 10,500 tonnes of rice, making good on last year’s promise of aid following floods that wiped out crops in the North.
The Southern government is still planning to send the 400,000 tonnes of rice pledged through the inter-Korean channel, although not until the North complies with its vow to shut down its main nuclear reactor and re-admit international weapons inspectors.
Pyongyang is likely to make that move soon after it receives the $25m frozen at Macao’s Banco Delta Asia. That appears imminent, with Russia’s Far East Commercial Bank and the New York Federal Reserve apparently set to transfer the money to Pyongyang.
North Korea, a rocky region ill-suited to agriculture, suffers a perennial food deficit that the WFP estimates amounts to 1m tonnes a year.
The WFP, which feeds a third of the North’s 23m population following a devastating famine in the mid-1990s, estimates that one-third to half of North Koreans still face a daily struggle to find enough to eat. But it has been struggling to induce governments to donate to its North Korea operations since last year’s nuclear and missile tests.