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Food aid to Pyongyang unlikely to fuel Seoul’s nuclear diplomacy

The South Korean government is ramping up efforts to send food aid to North Korea in an attempt to thaw relations and revive stalled denuclearization negotiations between the US and the North, but it remains unclear how Pyongyang will respond.

The presidential office Cheong Wa Dae, the Unification Ministry and Foreign Ministry are moving swiftly to clear obstacles in providing humanitarian assistance to North Korea, after a call between President Moon Jae-in and US President Donald Trump on Tuesday. During the conversation, Trump had expressed support for the food aid plan.

An FAO and WFP assessment team visited Unpa County, North Hwanghae Province, in North Korea in April. (WFP)
An FAO and WFP assessment team visited Unpa County, North Hwanghae Province, in North Korea in April. (WFP)

“The government recognizes the need for humanitarian aid to improve the livelihood of North Koreans. Regarding the issue, we have a common understanding with the US,” the Foreign Ministry’s deputy spokesperson Kim Deuk-hwan said during a press briefing Thursday.

After a summit between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un ended without an agreement in February, Pyongyang has been reluctant to engage with Seoul. It has not responded to President Moon’s request for an inter-Korean summit.

Alarmed by the prospect of inter-Korean dialogue losing steam, Unification Minister Kim Yeon-chul visited a joint liaison office in North Korea’s border town of Kaesong on Tuesday, a move that a ministry official said was designed to “remind the North of the importance of the symbol of peace jointly created by the two Koreas.”

Offering food assistance is one of the few options that Seoul can exercise to persuade Pyongyang, as other forms of economic support or cooperation are restricted by international sanctions imposed on North Korea.

Previously, Seoul’s plan to give $8 million to the World Food Program and UNICEF, and to send 200,000 doses of flu medication Tamiflu to North Korea had been impeded by the US, though humanitarian aid is not subject to sanctions.

About 40 percent of North Korea’s population is in urgent need of food aid after the country suffered its worst harvest in a decade, according to a recent UN assessment.

On Wednesday, White House spokesperson Sarah Sanders said Washington would not “intervene,” if Seoul “moves forward on that front.”

Experts said the government’s possible humanitarian assistance could help build trust with North Korea but the move would have a limited impact on bringing the communist country back to the negotiating table.

“It may create a mood for reopening dialogue but the chance that North Korea will immediately come back or change its stance on the US is very slim,” said Koh Yu-hwan, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University.

Trump’s support for Seoul’s humanitarian assistance could be part of risk management following the North’s firing of short-range projectiles off its east coast Saturday, according to Kim Hyun-wook, a professor at the Korean National Diplomatic Academy.

“The government’s expectations that food aid will help resume the US-North Korea denuclearization negotiations are too high. Neither side wants to do that,” he said.

Meanwhile, US Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun, who arrived in Seoul on Wednesday, will discuss issues regarding North Korea with South Korean officials, including food aid and cooperative measures to move nuclear talks forward. During his four-day visit, Biegun will pay separate courtesy calls to the foreign and unification ministers Friday.