WASHINGTON (Yonhap News) ― South Korea does not oppose providing humanitarian food aid to North Korea as the communist country suffers from severe food shortages due to a poor harvest last year, a senior South Korean lawmaker said Monday.
Speaking to a forum here, Rep. Chung Mong-joon of the ruling Grand National Party said, “Nobody in South Korea opposes humanitarian aid to North Korea by South Korea or the U.S.,” but added, “We don’t want to give the wrong message to North Korea as we have done until recently.”
Chung, the former GNP head, was apparently referring to the former liberal South Korean presidents Roh Moo-hyun and Kim Dae-jung, who provided hundreds of thousands of tons of both food and fertilizer to North Korea every year despite Pyongyang’s continued development of nuclear weapons and missiles.
The conservative Lee Myung-bak administration cut off aid to North Korea, calling on the North to make progress in its denuclearization effort.
Lee severed almost all ties with North Korea after the sinking of a South Korean warship blamed on North Korea and the North’s shelling of a border island that killed 50 people last year.
Chung’s remarks come as U.S. officials are assessing the food situation in the North for possible resumption of the aid suspended two years ago over lack of transparency in food distribution.
“There is a review, and the criteria for food aid are, if you will, apolitical,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said last week. “They’re set on a specific set of criteria.”
The United Nations, which concluded a fact-finding mission in North Korea early this month, last week called for the provision of 430,000 tons of food aid to North Korea to avoid “the risk of malnutrition and other diseases” for millions of children, women and the elderly in the North, stricken by floods and severe winter weather.
Some reports said that North Korea is exaggerating its food shortages to hoard food in preparation for its distribution on the 100th anniversary of the birth of its late leader Kim Il-sung, father of current leader Kim Jong-il, which falls on April 15 next year.
Chung was also skeptical that the South would provide any food aid at an imminent date.
“They say we have nuclear weapons,” he said. “If we start to give food to North Korea, they would say food aid is coming from abroad because we are a nuclear state.”
Chung said he has seen signs of North Korea changing drastically.
“A North Korean contingency is like an earthquake,” he said. “We know it will happen. We just do not know when and how.”
He took note of hundreds of thousands of cell phones and DVDs circulating in the reclusive communist state.
“So people along the North’s Chinese border can communicate through mobile phones,” he said. “This is a significant difference now from before. There are hundreds of radios and North Korean people can hear South Korean broadcasts. They watch Chinese and South Korean television dramas. So North Korea now is very different from before.”