South Korea on Thursday approved a plan to provide $8 million in aid to North Korea via UN agencies as it seeks to handle humanitarian issues separately from political situations.
The government decided to support infants and pregnant women in North Korea, citing a serious humanitarian crisis facing them, according to Seoul's unification ministry. It marked the resumption of aid after a hiatus of nearly two years.
But Seoul said that it will later decide on the timing of an actual provision, apparently mindful of divided public opinion about assisting North Korea amid its provocations.
"The government will weigh the timing of an aid provision and size after taking into account various factors such as inter-Korean situations," the ministry said in a statement.
The move came amid concerns that Seoul's aid may compromise international efforts to pressure Pyongyang to give up its nuclear and missile programs.
Whether or not to offer aid to Pyongyang is an issue sparking political repercussions in a country in which conservatives and liberals are sharply divided on how to deal with North Korea.
The ministry said that the international community is sternly responding to North Korea's provocations, but also emphasizing the need to extend humanitarian assistance to North Koreans.
"The global community has shared its view about the need to separate aid from politics," Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon said.
Under the plan, the South will provide $4.5 million for a nutrition program run by the World Food Program. It will also chip in $3.5 million to a project on nutrition and vaccine provisions by the United Nations Children's Fund.
"Seoul has the principle of providing all of the $8 million to North Korea," a government official said, asked whether the size of the actual provision could be smaller.
A UN report showed that about 72 percent of the 24.9 million North Koreans are suffering from food shortages and malnutrition. Among them, 1.3 million, including children and pregnant women, are in acute need of help.
Karin Hulshof, regional director for East Asia and the Pacific at UNICEF, highlighted the urgency of helping North Korean children, saying that the challenges they are facing are "all too real."
It is the first humanitarian assistance by Seoul under the Moon Jae-in administration, which took office in May.
South Korea offered humanitarian assistance to the North even under conservative administrations. But the government under ousted President Park Geun-hye, Moon's predecessor, suspended humanitarian assistance after the North's fourth nuclear test in January 2016.
In May, the Moon government announced its move to spur civilian inter-Korean exchanges and assistance, but North Korea has rejected them, citing the South's support of UN sanctions.
South Korea has put massive state-backed assistance to North Korea on hold following its 2010 sanctions designed to punish the North for the sinking of a South Korean warship.
Instead, the government had permitted civic groups to provide aid to the North and helped North Koreans indirectly via international organizations. (Yonhap)