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South Korea Approves Interim Food Aid to North

South Korea has agreed to send $25 million worth of emergency food aid to North Korea via the United Nations. Seoul is holding back a far larger food shipment, however, until Pyongyang lives up to its promise to start dismantling its nuclear weapons programs. There are new signs of a possible first step in that direction, but nothing concrete yet. VOA's Kurt Achin reports from Seoul.

South Korean Unification Minister Lee Jae-joung announced Thursday that Seoul would send more than 30,000 tons of emergency corn, wheat, and beans to North Korea via the United Nations World Food Program.

Lee says the action is appropriate given North Korea's situation, and the South's role as a responsible member of international society.

World Food Program officials say the economically isolated North faces some of its severest food shortages since the mid-1990's, when it suffered widespread famine.

Earlier this year, South Korea promised Pyongyang a shipment of nearly half a million tons of rice, but Seoul is delaying delivery of that larger amount until the North fulfills the first phase of an agreement it made to start dismantling its nuclear weapons program.

North Korea promised South Korea, Japan, China, Russia, and the United States it would dismantle its main nuclear facility by mid-April. That date passed with no action by Pyongyang, which said it was waiting until it had regained possession of $25 million of its money that was frozen in accounts in Macau's Banco Delta Asia.

The funds were frozen after the United States Treasury designated BDA as complicit in illegal activities such as money laundering. Although the United States has removed its objection to returning the money to the North, no bank has been willing to touch it for fear of jeopardizing relations with the U.S. banking system.

South Korean Foreign Minister Song Min-soon said this week a solution to the issue is now close at hand.

He says the BDA issue is in its "final phase," thanks to what he calls "concrete measures undertaken by the concerned parties." He says Seoul has had close consultations with the United States, China, and Russia.

South Korea and Japanese media reports said Thursday that arrangements had been made for the United States to route the North Korean funds through its Federal Reserve Bank in New York, and on to the central bank of Russia. The reports said the funds would then be deposited in a North Korean account at a Russian bank. There has been no official confirmation of the reports.

Here in Seoul, Unification Minister Lee denied that the decision to send the emergency food shipment indicated that the transfer of funds was about to take place.

He told reporters Friday, Seoul's decision to send food to the North via the United Nations was unrelated to the BDA issue.

More details about the state of the nuclear disarmament process may emerge Friday, when the chief U.S. nuclear negotiator, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, arrives in Mongolia. Hill is also due to make stops in Beijing, Seoul, and Tokyo.

It remains to be seen whether resolving the BDA issue will be enough to persuade North Korea to take action on its nuclear program. Experts say that will depend on whether Pyongyang feels it has the full access to the international banking system, which it feels it deserves.