South korea approves $8m aid package for the North

Funds will be sent for humanitarian programmes, aimed at helping infants and pregnant women. This decision risks causing a rift with the US and Japan

21 September 2017, 10:07am
South Korean national flags hang on a barbed-wire fence near the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas in Paju, South Korea (Photo: Reuters)
South Korean national flags hang on a barbed-wire fence near the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas in Paju, South Korea (Photo: Reuters)
South Korea has approved a plan to send $8m worth of aid to the North, as a humanitarian gesture and following reports from China claiming that the crisis in Pyongyang was getting more serious by the day.

The South said it aimed to send $4.5 million worth of nutritional products for children and pregnant women, through the World Food Programme and $3.5 million worth of vaccines and medicinal treatments through UNICEF.

South Korea’s unification ministry agreed to provide the funds, just days after the UN security council agreed to a further round of sanctions, in response to the regime’s most recent nuclear test.

The unification ministry, which oversees cross-border relations, said that humanitarian aid to the impoverished North should remain unaffected by rising political tensions. They also said that the timing of the shipments would be announced at a later date.

North Korea’s foreign minister likened US president Donald Trump to a “barking dog”, after Trump warned that he would “totally destroy” the North if it threatened the US and its allies.

Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi said: “We call on all parties to be calmer than calm and not let the situation escalate out of control”, according to a report from the state-run China News service, on Thursday.

Cho Myung-gyon, South Korea’s unification minister, said the government had “consistently said we would pursue humanitarian aid for North Korea in consideration of the poor conditions there among children and pregnant women”.

The decision is a break with the hard-line policy on aid, pursued by Seoul since the start of last year. It also risks causing a rift with the US and Japan, which regard engagement as a concession to North Korea, while it accelerates its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programmes.

The Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe, reportedly asked the South Korean president, Moon Jae-in, to reconsider the timing of the aid package in a recent telephone call. Japan’s government spokesman, Yoshihide Suga, said it could undermine international efforts to put pressure on North Korea.

In the meantime, UNICEF’s regional director for East Asia and the Pacific, Karin Hulshof, said North Korean children faced problems that were “all too real”.

“Today, we estimate that about 200,000 children are affected by acute malnutrition, heightening their risk of death and increasing rates of stunting,” Hulshof said. “Food and essential medicines and equipment to treat young children are in short supply.”

An estimated 18 million of North Korea’s 25 million people require assistance due to food shortages and malnutrition, according to the UN.

Moon’s conservative predecessor Park Geun-hye halted humanitarian aid to North Korea after the regime conducted a nuclear test in January 2016.

The decision to resume aid is not popular in the South and President Moon Jae-in’s approval rating has taken a hit. It also raised concerns in Japan and the US.

Moon, Abe and Donald Trump are due to discuss the North Korean crisis on the side-lines of the UN general assembly later on Thursday.