April 28, 2015 10:06
The South Korean government on Monday approved civilian fertilizer aid to North Korea for the first time in five years. The aid was halted after the North sank the Navy corvette Cheonan in March 2010.
It remains to be seen whether this will lead to a thaw in cross-border relations, but the North certainly softened in its attitude after earlier rejecting humanitarian aid.
Unification Ministry spokesman Lim Byeong-cheol said the government’s policy here is "to keep allowing humanitarian aid to the North that is helpful to the improvement of North Koreans' livelihoods."
Seoul has been casting around for ways to improve relations with Pyongyang recently.
Unification Minister Hong Yong-pyo told reporters on April 17 he expected inter-Korean relations to improve once the joint annual South Korea-U.S. military exercises came to an end last week.
South Korea is also seeking talks to lift broader economic sanctions.
A senior government official said the government is also "thinking about giving other kinds of aid in addition to fertilizer," probably rice, which also been on hold since the Cheonan tragedy.
Last Wednesday, the ministry eased curbs on which organizations can give aid to the North.
The North has responded to the overtures with its usual bluster. Two days after Hong made the remarks, the North Korean propaganda website Uriminzokkiri said, "Stop having silly dreams." But it is widely thought that Pyongyang also wants better relations with Seoul.
Prof. Kim Yong-hyun of Dongguk University said, "The acceptance of fertilizer can be construed as a signal that the two Koreas have reached a consensus about better relations."
In February, the North roundly rejected the South Korean Red Cross's offer of 25 tons of powdered formula. But Pyongyang approved a visit by Unification Ministry officials visit to review the Rajin-Khasan project on April 17-23.
Pyongyang has also softened over a wage hike for North Korean workers at the joint Kaesong Industrial Complex, agreeing to hold talks with the South Korean management committee.
And Lee Hee-ho, the widow of former president Kim Dae-jung, is expected to visit the North next month.
But approaches between the two sides vary widely. North Korea wants big, lucrative concessions like resumption of package tours to Mt. Kumgang and lifting of sanctions through high-level talks, while Seoul is focused on baby steps.
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