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South Korea Offers Humanitarian Aid to North


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South Korea is preparing what may be its first aid transfer to North Korea in almost two years. The humanitarian gesture is a tiny fraction of the assistance previous governments extended to Pyongyang.

South Korean Unification Ministry Spokesman Chun Hae-sung said Monday that the government is ready to help hungry North Koreans with emergency food aid.

Chun says Seoul is ready to send 10,000 tons of corn, 20 tons of milk powder and various medical supplies to North Korea. He describes the offer as a humanitarian operation targeted at the most vulnerable North Koreans, including children and pregnant women.

The offer follows recent talks between Red Cross officials from the two countries, which would oversee the distribution of the supplies. North Korea has not yet formally accepted the aid, but is seen as likely to do so.

North Korea's isolation and economic mismanagement has produced chronic food shortages for nearly two decades, peaking in a mid-1990s famine believed to have killed hundreds of thousands of people. The United Nations World Food Program says Pyongyang depends heavily on international handouts to ensure a bare sustenance level for most of the population.

Spokesman Chun acknowledges the South's current food offer will only ease, rather than solve, the North's problems.

He says considering the North's shortages and other circumstances, 10,000 tons of corn will not be sufficient to feed its people. But, he adds, no additional aid is currently under review.

Previous South Korean governments transferred more than half a million tons of rice and fertilizer to North Korea annually.

However, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak ended such massive assistance when he was inaugurated early last year. His administration has linked aid to progress on ending North Korea's nuclear weapons programs. The North conducted its second nuclear weapons test in May.

More than a year of sharp rhetoric has given way to what many regional experts see as a thaw between North and South in recent months, including a round of reunions for families separated by the 1950s war between the two sides.

South Korean media reports have said there may have been limited discussion of a North-South summit. However, South Korean Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan told lawmakers Monday more progress is needed before that can happen.

He says if a summit ever did take place, it would have to be more than just an event for show - it would have to deal directly with the North Korean nuclear issue.

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