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South Korea to Send Humanitarian Aid to North, Keeping Diplomatic Channels Open

South Korean President Moon Jae-in speaks during a press conference marking his first 100 days in office at the presidential house in Seoul, Aug. 17, 2017.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in speaks during a press conference marking his first 100 days in office at the presidential house in Seoul, Aug. 17, 2017.

Coming amid soaring tensions over North Korea’s escalating nuclear and military threat, South Korea’s recent offer of humanitarian assistance to the North is drawing varied reactions from U.S. experts.

Under President Moon Jae-in, who has advocated for greater engagement with Pyongyang, the South Korean government announced last week a plan to send $8 million in aid to the North through two U.N. agencies – UNICEF and the World Food Program (WFP). Officials in Seoul said the humanitarian aid package would support vulnerable groups including children, many of whom are impacted by the latest sanctions against the North.

If realized, it would mark the government’s first assistance to North Korea since December 2015. Moon’s predecessor, Park Geun-hye, suspended aid after the regime’s fourth nuclear test a month later.

Offering humanitarian aid, in the midst of weeks of heated rhetoric from both U.S. President Donald Trump and the Kim Jong Un regime, is stirring up questions and concerns about the timing of Seoul's announcement. After North Korea’s sixth and biggest nuclear test and continuing missile launches, some analysts say the aid could be seen as undermining international efforts to isolate North Korea financially.

Sound diplomatic tactic

Other analysts and observers contend that Seoul's goodwill offer of aid also is a sound diplomatic tactic. However, some experts say that continuing questions about how to respond to North Korea could drive a wedge between Washington and Seoul.

“There are a number of problems with attempting to provide humanitarian aid to [North Korea] through such channels right now,” Nicholas Eberstadt, a Korea expert with the American Enterprise Institute, told VOA’s Korean Service.

The first and obvious problem, Eberstadt said, is that offering aid sends a mixed message, one that might result in “a separation of allies at a time when [the North] should be penalized.”

Another critic of the South Korean initiative, Larry Niksch, a Korea expert formerly with the U.S. Congressional Research Service, said $8 million is a token amount of aid, barely enough to have a significant impact on North Koreans in need. What is worse, Niksch said, is that the Kim regime likely would steer a large chunk of that small amount of assistance to military programs.

“[Of] any food given to North Korea by WFP ... at least 30 percent will be diverted by the regime to the military or the elite,” Niksch said.

At a time when North Korea is making advances in its nuclear and missile programs, Niksch said that what Kim wants are military concessions from Moon, starting with a suspension of U.S.-South Korea military exercises.

In the face of that criticism, proponents of Seoul’s decision to extend humanitarian aid to Pyongyang say it was both a goodwill gesture and a calculated move to leave a diplomatic door open.

“By offering a token $8 million of humanitarian assistance to the U.N., South Korea is signaling that it has not completely shut the door for engagement, humanitarian or otherwise,” said Andrew Yeo, an associate professor of politics at the Catholic University of America, in Washington.

No appeasement

And because the Moon government has adopted a fairly hard stance against North Korea, pushing for sanctions and coordinating with the U.S. in taking additional security measures, the offer of humanitarian assistance in this context “should not be interpreted as appeasement,” Yeo added.

John Feffer, who directs the Foreign Policy in Focus program at the Institute for Policy Studies, lauded the South Korean government for “doing the right thing — demonstrating that it is attentive to the needs of [North Korean] citizens.”

“It's been a longstanding principle to separate humanitarian issues from politics,” Feffer said. “The U.N. agencies are trying to help the neediest in North Korea. It is never the intention of economic sanctions to hurt the most vulnerable in society.”

Stephan Haggard, a visiting fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, echoed Moon's stance that strategic and humanitarian issues should not be linked.

“The WFP and other U.N. agencies have outlined clear humanitarian needs and distribute aid in a way which is generally well-monitored,” Haggard said. “The amount is modest, but is a sign of goodwill, and the potential for wider cooperation, not only with South Korea but with the international community.”

The U.N. welcomed the South Korean decision.

“The U.N. sanctions against [North Korea] explicitly recognize that special steps must be taken to ensure that sanctions don't add to the suffering of innocent children, too many of whom in [the country] are already experiencing malnutrition,” said Chris de Bono, UNICEF's regional chief of communication in East Asia and Pacific.

“This is why the Security Council sanctions resolutions — including the new resolution adopted last week — include a special paragraph that says that essential lifesaving humanitarian work must be allowed to continue, and that restrictions do not apply to life-saving work for the poor and disadvantaged.”