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(News Focus) Aid to N. Korea on ice amid inter-Korean tensions
By Lee Joon-sung
SEOUL, May 22 (Yonhap) -- South Korea's private aid to North Korea has effectively been frozen in the face of heightened inter-Korean tensions that are undermining the foundation of local help organizations and hurting mutual trust building efforts, sources said Wednesday.

   Civic group sources belonging to the Korea NGO Council for Cooperation with North Korea (KNCCK) said escalation of tension following the detonation of Pyongyang's third nuclear device in February, along with the suspension of business operations at the Kaesong Industrial Complex early last month, has exerted negative influence on already strained relations.

   Seoul had banned almost all cross-border cooperation following the sinking of one of its warships near the sea demarcation line with North Korea in 2010. Even before the sinking, South Korea halted the Mount Kumgang tours in July 2008 after a female tourist was shot to death by a North Korean guard.

   The situation took a turn for the worse in the wake of the North firing off a long-range rocket, and conducting its second nuclear test in April and May of 2009.

   "Policymakers have said they will separate humanitarian aid issues from political developments, yet assistance to the North has dried up in the last three years," said a KNCCK insider, who declined to be identified.

   While some civic groups expressed hope that the new Park Geun-hye administration, which has emphasized trust building with the North as its main goal, will take a different path from that of the previous Lee Myung-bak government, such expectations have been dashed with Seoul and Pyongyang locked in a war of words over the Kaesong issue, he said.

   Others said that with a lack of cooperation and exchanges, support for aid shipments has evaporated. In 2008, government support for aid going to the North stood at 24.1 billion won (US$21.6 million), but this fell to just 7.7 billion won in the following year, with no support coming from Seoul after 2010.

   Such a development, coupled with negative public views toward North Korea that threatened pre-emptive nuclear strikes against the South, has caused a drop in donations that has exacerbated overall conditions.

   The Okedongmu Children of Korea, which specializes in donating medical supplies and nutritional supplements for North Korean kids, said both its private sector and corporate donations nosedived in 2012 compared to 2008.

   Of the 56 members of the KNCCK, only 10 have taken steps to send aid to the communist country in the last four years, with most of the shipments being limited to baby and medical supplies, although Seoul technically permits assistance for the socially disadvantaged.

   In addition, civic group officials said the Ministry of Unification's stance of not authorizing aid shipments is discouraging help being sent to the North.

   "The ministry often says it is 'reviewing' shipment requests or asks groups 'to be patient and wait' even though no actual decision is forthcoming," a North Korea support activist said. Under South Korean law all shipments going to the North must be cleared by the ministry that is in charge of South-North Korean affairs.

   He pointed out that from March onwards, no group has requested permission to send supplies to the North.

   Reflecting the lack of activities, groups complained that they no longer have qualified personnel able to negotiate with their northern counterparts to deliver goods even if permission is granted.

   "There have been only a handful of civic group workers that visited the North in the past few years, that represent a drain in knowhow that had been accumulated since the 1990s," the activist said.

   He even said that even those that have sent donations in the face of negative social publicity are complaining about the lack of shipments going to the North, which can lead to a drop in donations down the line.

   Reflecting such conditions, a few civic groups said they are switching to send assistance to disadvantaged people in developing countries.

   Meanwhile, some vocal civic group leaders such as Lee Yeon-hee, the head of a Kyoreh Hana organization, said Seoul must announce realistic measures to get the North to come to the negotiating table.

   The activist said Seoul should lift the 2010 ban to show the North its willingness to mend fences that could lay the foundation for improved ties down the line.