South Korea on Saturday appeared to ease conditions to resume food aid to North Korea, calling on its northern neighbor to prove it’s facing a crisis and ensure donated rice won’t go to the military.
The comments by Foreign Minister Gong Ro-myung could pave the way for free rice shipments to the impoverished North Korea by South Korea, Japan and possibly the United States.
South Korea previously had insisted that North Korea reopen dialogue, ease anti-South rhetoric and make an official request for assistance. Gong did not specifically mention those issues Saturday but said any rice aid should be tied to improved bilateral relations.
Gong said verification of the food crisis by an international agency like the United Nations’ World Food Program would be acceptable.
North Korea reportedly has a chronic food shortage that was exacerbated by devastating floods last summer, prompting the reclusive communist country to seek outside aid for the first time.
The United Nations said last week that food rationing imposed by the government to cope with shortages could put millions of people at risk of starvation this winter.
Officials from Japan and South Korea are scheduled to meet with Americans in Hawaii next month to discuss conditions in North Korea, and food aid is expected to be on the agenda.
Separately in Hawaii next month, North Korea has agreed to discuss the repatriation of the remains of U.S. troops and those from allied countries still missing from the Korean War, officials said Saturday.
Gong estimated North Korea’s grain shortfall at between 1.2 million and 3 million tons and said that is more than aid agencies can provide. Only government assistance could fill such a shortfall, he said.