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NORTH KOREA NEWSLETTER NO. 225 (August 30, 2012)
*** TOPIC OF THE WEEK

S. Korean Civilian Groups Set to Resume Humanitarian Aid to N. Korea

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- Several South Korean civilian aid organizations are in discussions to renew humanitarian assistance to impoverished, flood-stricken North Korea as the Seoul government appears to have softened its stance on helping its socialist neighbor.

   Though Seoul still remains uncommitted to government-level massive aid to the North, it has begun approving requests to visit the North by several aid groups so that they can work out humanitarian relief agreements.

   Seoul had kept mum about growing relief needs in the flood-ravaged North due mainly to a chill in inter-Korean relations.

   South Korea's Unification Ministry noted on Aug. 16 a total 13 non-governmental organizations have given humanitarian relief aid to the North on 22 occasions so far this year, valued at 4.1 billion won (US$3.6 million).

   On Aug. 28, the Unification Ministry, which handles inter-Korean issues, approved a one-day trip to the North by the Korea NGO Council for Cooperation with North Korea (KNCCNK) set for Aug. 29.

   However, North Korea unilaterally canceled plans to hold talks with two other South Korean aid organizations for unknown reasons later the same day.

   On Aug. 24, the KNCCNK agreed to send food and supplies to North Korea to help it cope with massive flooding after its officials' rare cross-border consultations with the North.

   The understanding was reached between four officials of the KNCCNK and North Korean officials during the one-day trip to Kaesong, a border city in the North. The officials met with representatives of the National Reconciliation Council, North Korea's organization for promoting friendship with the South.

   It was the first visit by a South Korean group since the North reported that hundreds of people were killed and thousands left homeless by torrential rain and floods.

   The KNCCNK is an umbrella organization for 51 local aid groups. Lee Yun-sang, vice president of the group, said the package would consist of food ― perhaps in the form of flour ― along with medical and other supplies.

   "I think aid goods could be delivered to the North as soon as possible if the (Seoul) government is cooperative," Lee said.

   "Recent floods left the entire region of North and South Hwanghae provinces severely damaged," Lee said referring to the southern part of the North.

   "Both the South and North sides took the discussion seriously," he said, adding the North's group expressed its firm willingness to resume aid exchanges with non-governmental groups in the South.

   North Korea has said devastating floods this summer killed more than a hundred of its people and severely damaged public facilities and farmland.

   According to other sources, the KNCCNK will deliver some 3,000 tons of flour to South Phyongan and Hwanghae provinces for over a month from September to October.

   The aid organizations also said they will conduct a national fund-raising campaign for the flood victims and poor North Korean children by Sept. 28.

   They said they plan to send relief aid to the North before the national holiday of Chuseok, which falls on Sept. 30.

   Despite the sudden cancellation by the North on Aug. 28, the two South Korean civilian groups affected say they are still ready to provide aid to the North anytime Pyongyang allows them to visit to the North for consultations on detailed matters.

   Okedongmu Children in Korea and Foundation of Inter-Korean Cooperation said on Aug. 28 they received fax messages from North Korea's National Reconciliation Council calling off talks set for the next day in Kaesong.

   The two organizations said they were invited to visit the socialist country to discuss details on how best to provide humanitarian aid to flood victims. Kaesong lies on the west coast, just north of the demilitarized zone that separates the two Koreas, and is home to an industrial complex for South Korean companies.

   "We plan to try to contact the North to set another date for the meeting," an Okedongmu official said.

   Independent sources, meanwhile, said that Pyongyang may have called off the meeting because of the annual Ulchi Freedom Guardian military exercise that South Korea is conducting with the United States.

   Seoul and Washington are carrying out their annual military exercise, which Pyongyang insists is a rehearsal for an invasion. The allies maintain the computer-assisted games are defensive in nature.

   The exercises, slated to wrap up this week were put on hold on Aug. 28 as Typhoon Bolaven whipped through the Korean Peninsula.

   Others said that the meeting might have been canceled due to damage caused by the typhoon.

   Separately, a Christian relief organization visited North Korea to discuss humanitarian aid to the socialist country.

   Three World Vision officials including vice chairman Park Chang-bin crossed the border through the Dorasan transit office in Paju on Aug. 17 and held a one-day meeting in Kaesong with a North Korean organization dealing with non-governmental aid, an official from the relief group said. The visit was approved by Seoul's Unification Ministry on Aug. 16.

   Following the consultation and further discussion via fax, World Vision agreed with the North's National Economic Cooperation Federation on Aug. 26 to provide 500 tons of flour to the most heavily-hit cities of Anju and Kaechon, South Phyongan Province.

   The details of the aid delivery will be worked out with the KNCCNK, to which World Vision belongs, according to another official from the group.

   Pyongyang, which suffers from poor infrastructure and deforestation, frequently requests aid after heavy downpours.

   Cross-border tensions have continued under North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, who took over in December, as the regime still hurls rhetoric at the South Korea's conservative Lee Myung-bak government.

   Last summer Seoul offered to send medicine and basic necessities such as blankets and instant noodles, but Pyongyang rejected the package, requesting cement and other food stuffs instead.

   Cross-border shipments or travels need the Unification Ministry's approval. The ministry also regulates what kinds of items are shipped to the North.

   The international community remains concerned that certain supplies such as rice are diverted to the North's military.

   The United Nations and other countries channeled funds and other relief goods to the North as part of their humanitarian assistance.

   Also on Aug. 24, Seoul's Unification Minister Yu Woo-ik floated the possibility of Seoul's government-level relief assistance to the North. The move, if made, would likely help thaw the frozen relations with the North.

   Minister Yu said in a parliamentary meeting with lawmakers that Seoul could provide aid to the North "if the situation requires."

   "We have been watching the state of North Korea's flood damage with a view that we can suggest aid provision even without requests from the North in case the situation gets serious," the minister said.

   His ministry is studying when would be the best time for aid and whether to give it, Yu said, adding he is trying to make a proper decision.

   A major development in the flood aid exchange could possibly translate into a turnaround in the restrained South-North relations, a government official has said.

  (END)
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