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Dagyum Ji is a senior NK News correspondent based in Seoul. She previously worked for Reuters TV.
The World Food Programme (WFP) has learned that North Korea likely intends to reject a planned food aid package from the South Korean government, the Ministry of Unification (MOU) confirmed on Wednesday.
In a move reportedly intended as a protest against an upcoming joint U.S.-ROK military drill, the admission sees Seoul confirm earlier reports in local newspaper the Kyunghyang Shinmun that Pyongyang has “expressed its intent to refuse to receive 50,000 tons of domestic rice.”
That report also suggested the North’s reported rejection may be linked to its having already overcome ongoing food shortages following renewed help from the international community, the official pointed out.
“The WFP discovered this position exists within North Korea during working-level consultation with the North,” MOU deputy spokesperson Kim Eun-han said during a regular briefing.
“The government is in the process of confirming the North’s official position through the WFP,” he continued, while declining to comment on Seoul’s planned response should the North formally express its intention to refuse the aid.
“The government wants food aid to be provided to resolve the difficulties of the North Korean people on humanitarian and compatriotic grounds,” he added, saying the South Korean government “expects and hopes” that the planned provision of 50,000 tons of rice will go ahead “as originally scheduled.”
“We look forward to receiving a response from the North.”
South Korean Minister of Unification Kim Yeon-chul in June announced that his government planned to send 50,000 metric tons of locally-produced rice to the North via the WFP.
Since then, Seoul has pushed ahead with the plans, with a view to sending the first shipment to the North this month.
The MOU deputy spokesperson on Monday reaffirmed the South Korean government’s commitment to that time frame, telling a regular briefing that Seoul “will put the utmost efforts into ensuring that the 50,000-ton aid delivery will be completed without any setbacks.”
But amid criticism from Pyongyang over U.S.-ROK plans to push ahead with the “Dong-Maeng” exercise, the unification ministry on Tuesday appeared to change tact.
Asked if the ship carrying the rice would be able to depart for the North within the month, an MOU official — who wished to remain anonymous — told local media it is “hard to conclusively say whether it is possible or not.”
Regarding the possibility that the shipment might be postponed until next month, the official said Seoul would “need to wait and see.”
In an unusual move, North Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) last week issued two separate statements slamming the Dong Maeng 19-2 exercise, set to take place next month as a replacement for the now-terminated Ulchi Freedom Guardian (UFG) drill.
The WFP previously assisted Seoul in sending corn, mixed grain, flour, beans, powdered milk, and wheat to the North between 1996 and 2007, with the recent planned shipment being the first time the South had sought to send domestically-produced rice to Pyongyang via a UN agency.
The rice was set to be provided to a total of 2.12 million North Koreans in 120 cities and counties.
With the two Koreas facing a diplomatic impasse in the wake of February’s no-deal second DPRK-U.S. summit, the decision to send humanitarian aid initially appeared to represent something of a breakthrough in recent relations between Seoul and Pyongyang.
May also saw the South Korean government announce plans to send $8 million in humanitarian aid to the North via the WFP and United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), with the transmission of funds to the two UN agencies reportedly completed on June 11.
Pyongyang’s response to Seoul’s decision to send the funds and food aid was not favorable, however, with state-run media in May dismissing South Korea’s claims that the move could improve relations as “a deception of public sentiment and a disrespectful and reasonless act against the same race.”
Accusing the South Korean government of making a “fuss” through its argument that inter-Korean relations could be improved through humanitarian cooperation, the Meari condemned Seoul for “making empty specious remarks.”
Following South Korea’s decision to send the $8 million, too, external-focused outlets and the weekly Tongil Sinbo that same month stressed that humanitarian assistance is a “secondary issue” in improving inter-Korean relations.
Seoul’s plans to send influenza worth around USD$3.2 million to the North — first announced in January — have also reportedly fallen through.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: WFP/Silke Buhr