South Korea will consider resuming humanitarian aid to impoverished North Korea but it has ruled out assistance on the large scale of previous, more liberal administrations, a senior official said on Sunday.
Any such assistance would be the first from the conservative administration of President Lee Myung-bak, who has linked aid to the North's progress in getting rid of its nuclear programs. For a decade, South Korea was one of the biggest donors to the North, shipping hundreds of thousands of tons of food across the militarized border every year. But aid stopped after Lee took office last year with a pledge to get tough on the North.
That prompted a dip in relations, and tensions deepened over the regime's nuclear and missile tests earlier this year. Ties have since improved. North Korea asked for humanitarian assistance at talks with the South on Friday, its first such request during Lee's government. On Thursday, South Korea's top official for inter-Korean relations indicated that Seoul is prepared to offer North Korea food aid without conditions as a humanitarian gesture.
A senior South Korean official told reporters on Sunday that the government will consider providing limited aid to help the most vulnerable people like infants and young children. Local media have reported that the government is thinking about sending up to 50,000 tons of food.
But large-scale aid seen in the previous governments would be "going beyond the scope of pure humanitarian assistance" and is not in line with the current administration's policy on the North, the official said on condition of anonymity due to the issue's sensitivity.
North Korea, which has faced chronic food shortages since flooding and mismanagement destroyed its economy in the mid-1990s, is usually short of at least 1 million tons of food every year and has relied on outside assistance to feed its 24 million people. Relations between the two Koreas have shown signs of improvement in recent months as the North has tried to reach out to Seoul with a series of conciliatory gestures, despite UN sanctions for its May nuclear test.
The two sides fought the 1950-53 Korean War that ended in a truce, not a peace treaty, leaving the divided peninsula still technically at war. Their ties had significantly warmed following the first-ever summit of their leaders in 2000 before souring again under Lee.