Aid to N.Korea Could Be a Way Out of Deadlock

      September 08, 2010 12:35

      North Korea in a message to the South Korean Red Cross on Saturday asked for rice as well as cement, vehicles and heavy construction equipment for flood relief operations. The request follows offers by the South Korean Red Cross on Aug. 26 and 31 to send W10 billion (US$1=W1,179) worth of emergency food supplies, basic necessities and medicine. North Korea on Tuesday also released seven South Korean fishermen who were captured on Aug. 8.

      Inter-Korean exchanges have been virtually frozen since the start of the Lee Myung-bak administration, especially after the shooting death of a South Korean tourist at North Korea's Mt. Kumgang resort. North Korea, meanwhile, is apparently facing an emergency after a series of devastating floods. In times like these, South Korea needs to look for ways to alleviate the pain and suffering of the North Korean people. Grand National Party leader Ahn Sang-soo asked the president on Tuesday to soften parts of his strictly quid-pro-quo policy of dealing with North Korea. Lee said in response changing the government's policy toward North Korea "isn't easy, since the public has high of expectations and they are watching the government's moves." He added, "The Red Cross is seeking to aid North Korea and this marks a step forward."

      When North Korea was hit by floods in 2006, Seoul sent 100,000 tons of rice and cement each, 80,000 blankets, 100 trucks, 50 excavators, and 5,000 tons of steel among other goods, with the aid totaling W231.3 billion. In 2007, it sent W49.3 billion worth of similar aid. The damage suffered by North Korea this time is believed to be the same or greater than in 2006 and 2007. But the problem is how South Korea should deal with the need to offer humanitarian assistance to North Koreans while Pyongyang remains in a state of confrontation with Seoul as it pursues its nuclear weapons program. And tensions remain high after the sinking of the Navy corvette Cheonan.

      That is why the government is apparently taking a cautious approach in offering rice, heavy machinery or cement, which North Korea could divert for military purposes. But from a broader perspective, there are limits to what can be done with aid shipments for military purposes. And previous experience with North Korea shows that there have been more cases where support for the North has led to an apology than where an apology has preceded support. Moreover, whenever North Koreans suffered from natural disasters, South Korea has always tended to put political issues aside and stepped up to offer humanitarian assistance. North Korea must be aware of this precedent.

      Given these complex problems, the government needs to look for ways to expand aid to the North but find a way to ensure that the goods are not diverted for military usage. It needs to consider that dialogue between the Red Cross organizations of both Koreas could mean a possible breakthrough in inter-Korean relations.

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