South Korea to Send the North Food Aid for the First Time in 9 Years

SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea said on Wednesday that it would provide 50,000 tons of rice to North Korea, in the hope that the humanitarian aid will help persuade the North to return to talks on improving inter-Korean ties and ending its nuclear weapons program.

Kim Yeon-chul, the South Korean unification minister, said the rice shipment would be delivered through the United Nations World Food Program before September to help North Korea during what are traditionally lean months.

He also dangled the prospect of more assistance, saying that South Korea would decide on “the time and scale for additional food aid” after reviewing “the results of this round of support.”

The United Nations reported last month that about 40 percent of North Korea’s population was in urgent need of food aid after the country suffered its worst harvest in a decade. With another harvest underway this month, there are fears that crops like wheat and barley will fall short as North Korea suffers its worst drought in 37 years.

So far, no reports of widespread starvation have emerged from North Korea, where as many as two million people died during a famine in the 1990s, according to some estimates.

The rice shipment, which is worth more than $100 million, will be South Korea’s first food aid for North Korea since 2010, when it sent 5,000 tons of rice.

The announcement came a day before President Xi Jinping of China was to start a two-day visit to North Korea. The Chinese leader is also on a mission to persuade the North to return to denuclearization talks with the United States, hoping that his mediating role will give Beijing leverage in its trade war with Washington.

President Moon Jae-in of South Korea has tried to serve as a mediator in the nuclear talks, making his efforts a hallmark of his foreign policy along with improving inter-Korean relations. But his efforts have come to a standstill since the breakdown in February of a summit meeting in Vietnam between President Trump and Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader.

In April, Mr. Moon said he was willing to meet with Mr. Kim at any time or place to help break the impasse between North Korea and the United States. Mr. Kim has shown little interest so far.

But in the past week, Mr. Moon has said that both South Korea and the United States are in contact with North Korea to resume dialogue. South Korean officials said they were not ruling out the possibility of the two Korean leaders holding a quick summit meeting on the border between their countries. Such a meeting would be similar to the one Mr. Moon and Mr. Kim held in May 2018 in an effort to salvage a canceled summit meeting between Mr. Kim and Mr. Trump.

Mr. Moon has long argued for providing humanitarian aid to North Korea, seeing it as a trust-building measure that will help bring the country back to the negotiating table. After the United Nations report last month, South Korea said it would provide $8 million in humanitarian aid to help North Korea’s malnourished children and pregnant women.

But such aid is deeply unpopular among Mr. Moon’s conservative opponents at home, especially when the North has not only made no progress in removing its nuclear weapons, but also resumed testing of short-range missiles.

To help blunt such criticism, Mr. Moon’s government hopes to persuade North Korea to agree to a new round of reunions of relatives separated during the Korean War in the early 1950s. These reunions, in which people meet their siblings and children for the first time since the war, have tended to soften South Koreans’ attitudes toward the North at least temporarily.

The United Nations sanctions do not prohibit humanitarian aid to the North. But as its nuclear and missile work has escalated in recent years, international relief agencies have been unable to collect substantial donations for chronically malnourished children and nursing mothers in the country.

South Korea has provided North Korea with $3 billion in humanitarian aid since 1995, when the first signs of a famine emerged there. That included $936 million in governmental food aid and $248 million in aid through international relief agencies. But Mr. Moon’s two conservative predecessors sharply curtailed humanitarian aid in response to the North’s nuclear and missile tests.

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