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Seoul mulls sending malaria aid to North Korea

South Korea is considering sending anti-malaria supplies to North Korea, an aid group here said Wednesday, indicating Seoul’s softening stance toward its northern rival.

The Seoul government is positively considering the group’s request to approve sending two items of ultrasonic diagnostic equipment to the North, the Korean Sharing Movement said.

Charity groups here need government approval to send any aid to North Korea, which is technically still at war with the South and conducted two deadly attacks last year.

The South Korean government, which had cut off dialogue and all kinds of aid since Pyongyang shelled a border island in November, has been making reconciliatory gestures in recent weeks.

On Tuesday, 300 tons of flour was trucked to the North for the first time in almost nine months and Seoul proposed holding government-level talks over the stalled cross-border tours to North Korea on Monday. Pyongyang demanded Seoul send business representatives instead.

The change of attitude in Seoul’s right-leaning government indicates its determination not to lose the initiative in regional dialogue as Pyongyang and Washington are scheduled to hold rare talks this week, analysts say.

Frustrated by South Korea’s months-long reluctance to thaw the ice, Pyongyang has been moving to directly negotiate with the U.S. over various issues, including the conditions of resuming the stalled six-nation denuclearization dialogue.

North Korea’s First Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye-gwan is currently in New York for talks with U.S. officials under the invitation of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

“The Unification Ministry, which had disallowed us from sending such devices in early July, is positively considering our request that we repeated two weeks ago,” a member of the charity group said.

An official at the Unification Ministry, which handles affairs with North Korea, said the supplies will be sent “so as long as they are not judged as strategic materials.”

A separate state agency is currently examining whether the anti-malaria devices have the possibility of being turned into war items, the official said.

South Korea has previously provided the North with anti-malaria aid. The North recently asked the local charity group to send ultrasonic diagnostic equipment as malaria can cause infant deaths if it is not detected at an early stage.

No malaria deaths have been reported in North Korea for nearly two decades, though there were more than 14,840 probable and confirmed malaria cases in 2009, according to the World Health Organization.

By Shin Hae-in (hayney@heraldcorp.com)
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