Ahn Sang-soo, the chairman of the ruling Grand National Party, met with senior government officials on Sunday and urged the resumption of food aid to North Korea after devastating floods there. When word spread that the head of the GNP made those comments, the Democratic Party, Democratic Labor Party and even the traditionally conservative Liberty Forward Party lined up to offer their support. But the Unification Ministry said Monday there are "currently no plans" to send rice aid. Cheong Wa Dae also said it is not looking into the matter at present.

Since 2000, the South Korean government sent around 400,000 tons of rice to North Korea per year, but that stopped in 2008 after North Korea conducted a second nuclear test, test-fired missiles and engaged in other provocations. Making matters worse, North Korea then attacked and sank the South Korean Navy corvette Cheonan but continues to deny it, let alone issue an apology. It has become extremely difficult for the South to justify any shipments of food aid to the North.

North Korea's state media has been reporting that flooding in July and August in most parts of the North left thousands of people without food, water and shelter, while thousands of homes and large swathes of farmland have been submerged. Considering North Korea's tendency not to reveal such information, the latest reports suggest that the situation must be very difficult indeed. Seoul estimates that North Korea is suffering a shortage of around 1.2 million tons of rice this year, enough to feed its entire population for three months. And the latest flooding is expected to make things even worse.

In a democratic society, top priority is given to rescue and aid when droughts, floods or other natural disasters lead to food shortages. But in an autocratic country like North Korea, damage from natural disasters is passed on directly to the public, leading to the possibility of mass starvation. It would be difficult for people in the South to watch their fellow Koreans in the North suffer.

Sanctions need to continue until North Korea confesses to sinking the Cheonan and makes a formal apology. But when the South announced sanctions against North Korea in May, it left open the possibility of sending humanitarian aid to the North. Moreover, South Korea has 1.4 million tons of surplus rice, which costs hundreds of billions of won each year to store.

The government needs to look into ways to ease the food situation in North Korea and help flood victims there, either through international organizations like the Red Cross or through civic group. With a pledge from Pyongyang to allow inspectors to check the proper distribution of food aid, South Korea can lend a helping hand.

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