South Korea announced plans Monday to send 5,000 tons of rice and other aid to flood-stricken North Korea in a sign of easing tension between the divided countries.
The aid would mark South Korea's first major aid shipment to North Korea since March's deadly sinking of a South Korean warship, which was blamed on Pyongyang. That incident spiked tensions, but the two Koreas have exchanged conciliatory gestures in recent weeks.
A senior U.S. envoy, meanwhile, huddled Monday with officials in Seoul during a trip focused on restarting the deadlocked negotiations over North Korea's nuclear program.
South Korea is planning 10 billion won ($8.5 million) in aid to help the North recover from heavy flooding that swamped farmland, houses and public buildings in its northwest last month, the South's Red Cross said Monday.
|A South Korean man, right, is guided by a volunteer to fill out an application form to reunite with his family members who are living in North Korea, at the headquarters of the Korean Red Cross in Seoul, South Korea, Monday, Sept. 13, 2010|
The aid would include 5,000 tons of rice, 10,000 tons of cement, medicine and other items to be financed by the government, Red Cross chief Yoo Chong-ha told a nationally televised news conference.
The impoverished North has relied on outside food aid to feed much of its 24 million people since the mid-1990s and experts fear the latest flooding worsened the North's chronic food shortage.
An estimated 80,000-90,000 people were affected by the flooding and the 50,000 tons of rice can feed about 100,000 people for 100 days, Yoo said. The aid was expected to be delivered within a month, he said.
After South Korea first offered flood aid last month, North Korea said it wanted rice, cement and heavy equipment. South Korean officials said heavy equipment was excluded from the plans over concerns it could be used for military purposes.
South Korea sent the North a message on detailed aid plans later Monday but there was no immediate response from the North, according to the Unification Ministry, which handles relations with Pyongyang.
Yoo also offered to hold working-level talks with officials from the North on Friday at the North Korean border village of Kaesong to discuss a resumption in a program to hold reunions for families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War. The North had proposed such talks over the weekend.
More than 20,800 separated families have been briefly reunited through face-to-face meetings or by video following a landmark inter-Korean summit in 2000. However, the program stalled a year ago as ties between the countries deteriorated.
The reunion program is highly emotional for Koreans, as most applying are elderly and eager to see loved ones before they die. "As you know, the issue of separated families is an urgent matter because they are old," Yoo said.
In other conciliatory gestures toward Seoul and Washington, the North has already freed a seven-crew of a South Korean fishing boat and an imprisoned American during a visit by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter.
The aid announcement came as President Barack Obama's special envoy on North Korea held talks Monday with Seoul officials, including Unification Minster Hyun In-taek, on inter-Korean ties and other North Korea-related matters, according to Hyun's office. The ministry gave no further details on the meeting.
Stephen Bosworth flew to South Korea on Sunday for a three-day trip focusing on restarting six-nation nuclear disarmament talks with North Korea.
North Korea pulled out of the talks last year to protest international criticism of its long-range rocket launch. Prospect for restarting the talks were further undermined following the warship sinking, which killed 46 sailors. North Korea flatly denies attacking the vessel and has warned any punishment would trigger war.
Bosworth was scheduled to meet senior South Korean foreign ministry and presidential officials later Monday. He is to travel on to Japan and China later this week.