N.Korea Asks for Rice, Cement, Heavy Equipment

North Korea wants rice and materials to repair flood damage such as cement and heavy equipment from South Korea, it was said in a message Saturday. The Unification Ministry on Tuesday said the message came from the North Korean Red Cross and was sent to its South Korean counterpart after the South offered some W10 billion in flood relief (US$1=W1,179).

The North asked for rice, cement, vehicles and bulldozers if the South is willing to help. The message was a belated response to the South Korean Red Cross's offer on Aug. 26 of emergency food supplies and medicines.

But Seoul is less keen to provide rice and building materials since such aid has been put on hold as part of sanctions after the North sank the South Korean Navy corvette Cheonan since the North has a history of diverting such aid to the military. Heavy equipment, cement and iron bars proved controversial when the South gave flood aid to the North in 2006 and 2007.

But the government seems nonetheless inclined to meet the request to some extent, with many officials saying rice in particular should be considered, according to a ministry official.

This was the first time since April 2007 that the North officially asked the South for rice as relations soured when the conservative Lee Myung-bak administration came to office in 2008. A security official said, "We could think positively of giving them rice if it comes out of the W10 billion we've offered."

According to the ministry, rice trades for W880,000 per ton on the international market, but the price here is W1.5-1.9 million, which means that even if the entire amount is spent on rice it would come to no more than 10,000 tons of foreign rice or 6,000 tons of South Korean rice.

A senior government official earlier told reporters the government could approve offers from the private sector to send rice aid to the North. But as far as supplies of heavy equipment go, public sentiment here is unfavorable. A North Korea expert said, "We can't afford to give them materials or equipment like bulldozers that could be used to implement projects such as modernizing or renovating Pyongyang for the North Korean ruling class.

The North Korean regime has been busy improving Pyongyang to have a positive achievement that can be credited to leader Kim Jong-il's son and heir apparent Jong-un, but lack of materials and equipment have delayed the project.

"There'll be an announcement on the supply of rice purely as a humanitarian issue between the Red Cross societies of the two sides," a senior Cheong Wa Dae official said. "But we'll have to think hard which materials best suit our intention of giving relief to flood victims."

At the moment, the North is clearly in dire need of aid from the South. It needs outside help amid a food shortage and is gearing up to establish Kim's successor at an extraordinary party congress this week.

It initially turned to traditional ally China, but although Kim senior visited China twice in May and August this year, he came away almost empty-handed and is under pressure from Beijing to reform and open up the country's failed planned economy.

Whether the request marks the beginning of a thaw in inter-Korean relations remains to be seen. "We'll have to watch for a while once the party congress is over to understand whether the North will be making this a priority," the Cheong Wa Dae official speculated.

In another sign of a softer line, North Korea on Tuesday released the crew of a South Korean fishing boat that had been towed to the North early last month for allegedly straying into its exclusive economic zone. "All these are generally positive signs," the official added.

englishnews@chosun.com / Sep. 08, 2010 09:12 KST