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Dagyum Ji is a senior NK News correspondent based in Seoul. She previously worked for Reuters TV.
South Korea will “in the near future” lay out detailed plans for sending food aid to North Korea, unification minister Kim Yeon-chul said on Wednesday.
The ROK Ministry of Unification (MOU) will make an announcement after “comprehensively reviewing” the issue, Kim told press following a visit to the joint inter-Korean liaison office in Kaesong — his first to the site since taking up the job in April.
Kim’s comments come a day after U.S. President Donald Trump was reported to have given South Korean President Moon Jae-in an informal green light to send humanitarian food aid to the North.
Speaking over the phone, the South Korean presidential office on Tuesday said, Trump said a shipment of food aid would be a “very timely and positive action.”
In response, minister Kim on Wednesday said he would “convene a meeting to prepare what kind of works that the Ministry of Unification should specifically do with regard to the phone conversation between the ROK and U.S. leaders.”
“We will make an announcement for journalists when a specific plan is set in the near future,” Kim said in a statement provided by the South Korean local joint press pool.
The MOU earlier in the day also confirmed that the government would push ahead with humanitarian food aid deliveries to North Korean people “in close cooperation with the international community,” in what appears to be Seoul’s first confirmation of its plans.
Seoul also appears to have shifted stance in the past few days, with Friday having seen MOU deputy spokesperson Lee Eu-gene say the government what not “specifically” looking into sending humanitarian food aid to Pyongyang at a government-level.
During a regular press briefing, spokesperson Lee Sang-min declined to comment, however, on when the assistance might be sent and the progress of internal deliberations.
“Discussions with related departments is needed with regard to issues including time, method, and size,” Lee told assembled media.
“There is nothing I can comment on at the current stage.”
Seoul “expressed concern at both the humanitarian as well as the compatriot level” over a recent food security assessment by the World Food Program (WFP) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) issued on Friday.
That report warned that 10.1 million North Koreans — 40 percent of the total population — remain “in urgent need of food assistance.”
Lee also dismissed questions about whether it was inappropriate to send food aid to the North in wake of this weekend’s missile test by Pyongyang, widely agreed to have been the first of its kind since November 2017.
“We have the stance that the North Korean people’s humanitarian situation should be improved and that humanitarian assistance should be consistently pushed forward towards this end,” he said.
“The government has maintained a consistent position on humanitarian assistance to North Korea since its inauguration.”
Although the spokesperson insisted South Korea and the U.S. have a “shared understanding” on the issue, he said it is yet to be decided if Kim will meet this week with U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun, who is set to visit Seoul on Thursday and Friday.
Speaking at the news conference on Wednesday, minister Kim Yeon-chul stressed that the goal of his visit to the liaison office had not been to hold “substantive discussions” with the North Korean side.
Kim said he was greeted and seen off by the North Korean tentative deputy director Kim Yong Chol, saying the two engaged in a “small talk” and that he had exchanged greetings with various other DPRK officials.
The South Korean unification minister also asked a North Korean official to send his regards to Ri Son Gwon, chairman of the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Country (CPRC) and his direct counterpart.
The North Korean official responded that they would “surely convey” his regards, Kim told assembled media.
Kim’s visit came as weekly and director-level meetings have been suspended for 10 consecutive weeks, following February’s talks between South Korean Vice Minister of Unification Chun Hae-sung and North Korean deputy director Hwang Chung Song.
Friday saw MOU deputy spokesperson Lee announce that Seoul and Pyongyang would again skip the director-level talks following a mutual consultation.
Lee confirmed that the North Korean tentative deputy director had been on duty, explaining that there was no precedent for South Korean head Chun to meet with a counterpart holding a temporary position.
When asked about if there had an exchange of opinions over the now weeks-long suspension of meetings, minister Kim on Wednesday said he had suggested that the two sides “normalize the function of the liaison office by faithfully implementing the inter-Korean joint declarations.”
“The North Korean side also strongly agreed that it has a firm commitment to implementing the inter-Korean joint declarations,” the unification minister said.
A total of seven director-level meetings have been held at the joint liaison office this year, Lee said last Friday, adding vice minister Chun has met his counterpart Jon Jong Su or a stand-in 19 times since the opening of the liaison office last September.
The stalled talks, too, come amid a growing North Korean disinterest in engaging with foreign officials: DPRK diplomats are reportedly retreating from meetings with regular foreign contacts at embassies in multiple Western countries.
North Korean officials are also currently being instructed to refrain from engaging in bilateral inter-Korean meetings at NGO / civic-group levels, an informed source told NK News on Wednesday.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured Image: Ministry of Unification (MOU)