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Dagyum Ji is a senior NK News correspondent based in Seoul. She previously worked for Reuters TV.
The South Korean government on Friday approved a request by a non-governmental organization to make contact with North Koreans, the first since the inauguration of the Moon Jae-in government earlier in the month.
The Korean Sharing Movement (KSM) will be allowed to make contact with the North Korean side to discuss a project aimed at preventing malaria outbreak in the inter-Korean border region.
The Ministry of Unification (MOU) said the request was accepted because of the “urgency of controlling infectious disease and the health of South and North Korean residents in the border areas.”
Under South Korean law citizens much get permission from the MOU before making contact with North Koreans.
This is the first time South Koreans will be allowed to contact North Koreans in 16 months since Pyongyang’s fourth nuclear test in January last year, according to the MOU.
“The severance in current inter-Korean relations is undesirable for the stability of the Korean Peninsula,” Lee Eugene, Deputy Spokesperson for the MOU, told media during a regular news briefing.
The Unification Ministry suggested that it would also soon be accepting requests from other civil groups.
“We plan to ‘continuously and flexibly’ consider the issues, including civilian exchanges, within the scope of not undermining the framework of the international community’s sanctions against North Korea,” Lee said.
The MOU confirmed to NK News that, since Moon Jae-in took office on May 10, 19 civic groups have asked the government to allow requests for contact with North Koreans to provide humanitarian aid, implement development projects, and plan exchanges in the social and cultural sectors.
Seoul reiterated it would stick with a two-track approach toward the North, saying the government would “respond strongly to provocations” by Pyongyang.
Following the MOU’s approval, the KSM told NK News that the organization planned to send a fax to Pyongyang to resume the long-stalled joint project, which was stopped in 2012 due to strained inter-Korean relations.
General Secretary Kang Young-sik said the organization would ask for North Korean views on a shipment of malaria-prevention equipment and discuss a possible visit by experts to the DPRK.
Regarding the issue of sending supplies and visiting the DPRK in the future, the MOU said a decision would be made “comprehensively, considering the details of the goods and the number of people, the situation of inter-Korea relations, and personal safety.”
South Korea’s Gyeonggi Provincial Government – which has worked with KSM – announced on Friday that it had invested 2.1 billion South Korean Won (USD$1,876,675) for four years from 2008 to 2011 in equipment to control the disease-carrying mosquitoes that fly across the heavily-fortified demilitarized zone (DMZ).
The Gyeonggi, Incheon and Gangwon Provinces, all located near the DMZ, will allocate KRW950 million (USD$848,972) this year for supplies, including larvae extirpator and disinfection vehicles.
The province said the number of malaria patients in the border areas including Gyeonggi, Incheon and Gangwon Provinces had decreased by 339 in 2013 from 1616 in 2007, but that the number of malaria patients in the South increased last year due to the suspension of inter-Korean cooperation in curbing the spread of malaria.
“More than 80 percent of malaria patients are presumed to be infected by the mosquitos that transmit malaria from North Korea,” the Gyeonggi Provincial Government said in a written statement. “The necessity of joint preventive measures against the disease between the South and the North has been continuously raised.”
KSM’s Kang said the project would see North and South Koreans work together on the “mutually beneficial project” and to solve a common problem.
“I have considerable expectations as we take our first steps,” he told NK News.
The Eugene Bell Foundation was the only South Korea-based NGO to engage in cooperation with the North last year, shipping multidrug-resistant tuberculosis (MDR-TB) medication to the DPRK.
The MOU in mid-January said it would allow the Eugene Bell Foundation to provide humanitarian aid and send medical supplies to the North in the first inter-Korean exchange of the year.
In January, Seoul declined a request by the South Korean Committee for the Implementation of the June 15 Joint Declaration to hold talks with North Koreans in a third country.
The MOU revealed on Friday that the committee again had on Tuesday again asked for approval to contact North Koreans and that authorities were reviewing the request.
Featured Image: South Korean government
Edited by Oliver Hotham