S. Korean aid groups hope for revival of inter-Korean exchanges
SEOUL-- The Korean Sharing Movement, a Seoul-based aid group, brimmed with fresh vigor last week as its staff prepared for pesticides and medical supplies to send as aid to North Korea. New President Moon Jae-in has vowed to engage Pyongyang and resume humanitarian assistance for the impoverished northern neighbor, long suspended by his conservative predecessors amid political tensions.
But its budding hopes ran into a hurdle again. The North suddenly rejected the group's offer on Monday, taking issue with the Moon government's support of the latest United Nations sanctions over the reclusive country's missile tests. The civic group had to postpone plans to send aid supplies and its officials to the North.
"It is regrettable that civilian exchanges could not be revived amid frayed inter-Korean ties," said Kang Young-sik, secretary-general of the group, which has been involved in humanitarian assistance to the North for 21 years.
"We're well aware of heightened tensions on the Korean Peninsula. But we believe civilian inter-Korean exchanges should be continued regardless of political situations," he added.
It is among more than 20 local aid providers that have asked the government to approve their plan to contact North Koreans over inter-Korean exchanges, as the liberal president took office on May 10.
Seoul's unification ministry said that it will flexibly consider the resumption of non-governmental exchanges to an extent that would not compromise the international sanctions regime. It has approved 15 requests by civic groups for contacts with North Korea since May.
It marked a sharp turn from Moon's two predecessors, reflecting his resolve to handle civilian exchanges separately from geopolitical tensions, analysts said.
But North Korea is apparently unhappy with Moon's dual-track approach of sternly responding to its provocative acts and resuming dialogue and civilian engagements.
One day after its rejection of South Korean civic and religious groups' offers, North Korea urged South Korea to fully implement the inter-Korean summit declarations on reconciliation in 2000 and 2007 before Seoul seeks to resume civilian exchanges.
"North Korea seems to try to seize the initiative in setting its relations with the South's new government and affect Moon's North Korea policy," said Cheong Seong-chang, a senior research fellow at the Sejong Institute.
South and North Korea remain technically in a state of war, as the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a truce, not a peace treaty.
Despite military confrontation and sporadic skirmishes, there is an emotional bond between South and North Koreans and reunification is the two countries' ultimate national goal.
Local aid groups have reached out to ordinary North Koreans and successive governments in Seoul have vowed to separately handle the humanitarian issue from political consideration. But humanitarian assistance has often been swayed by whether conservatives or liberals take power in Seoul.
South Korea's aid provision to the North at the state and civilian levels peaked at 439.7 billion won (US$392.6 million) in 2007 under liberal President Roh Moo-hyun, according to data by the Ministry of Unification.
It compared with 2.9 billion won in 2016 under Park Geun-hye's conservative government.
The ministry under Park said it would continue to support those vulnerable in North Korea, such as infants and pregnant women. But Seoul has suspended almost all civilian exchanges after North Korea conducted its fourth nuclear test in January 2016.
The South stayed away from assistance when North Korea was hit by massive floods in August 2016. It blamed the North for neglecting its people's suffering as the country carried out another nuclear test in September last year.
Local civic groups remained cautious about North Korea's latest attitude, but stressed that inter-Korean exchanges should not be linked to the political situation.
Um Ju-hyun, secretary-general at Medical Aid for Children, said that it has yet to receive a response from North Korea over its proposal for a health care project. The group previously sent medical devices to a children's hospital in Pyongyang.
"The current situation is very delicate. We will wait for the North's reaction first," she said.
Kim Myoung-dong, a director at the International Corn Foundation, also said that it is cautiously preparing to send corn seed and fertilizer to North Korea. The foundation helped it grow corn to ease its food shortages.
He emphasized the urgency of aid, saying that North Koreans are suffering from food shortages amid international sanctions.
"We oppose North Korea's nuclear and missile programs. But assistance to ordinary North Koreans should not be suspended," he said.
Its decision on letting South Koreans visit North Korea for a joint summit anniversary may become a litmus test in gauging how extensively Seoul would grant civilian exchanges amid the North's provocations, experts say.
A South Korean group said it has accepted North Korea's proposal to hold a joint event slated for June 2015 in Pyongyang to mark the first inter-Korean summit. It had hoped to hold it in the North Korean border city of Kaesong.
In 2003-2008, the two sides held summit events in Seoul and Pyongyang. If approved, it would mark the first time such a celebration has been jointly held in nine years.
But the government cast a prudent stance over its possible approval, saying that it will take into account the event's purpose, inter-Korean ties and the international environment.
Ken Gause, a senior analyst at U.S.-based CNA Corp., said that only after international pressure stops would the North be willing to hold serious inter-Korean dialogue.
"This puts the Moon administration in a difficult spot since it keeps South Korea on the sidelines until tensions calm down, which does not look likely for the foreseeable future."
Cheong at the Sejong Institute called for a more active Seoul role in improving ties with the North.
"The government should consider seeking behind-the-scenes contact with North Korea or sending a special envoy to read North Korea's stance."
Kang at the group voiced regret that the timely delivery of malaria-fighting goods would be elusive, but said his agency will continue its engagement efforts.
"I think that extension of humanitarian aid will pave the way for creating conditions for inter-Korean dialogue. It will also help raise awareness about unification," he said.
Source: Yonhap News Agency