(ATTN: RECASTS headline, lead, UPDATES with quotes from selected groups, signs of rift)
By Kim Hyun
SEOUL, Aug. 3 (Yonhap) -- South Korea authorized state funding for 10 North Korea aid organizations Monday, resuming humanitarian operations that had been frozen since the North conducted nuclear and rocket tests.
But the rare softening move toward Pyongyang drew mixed reactions among aid organizations in Seoul, as 3.57 billion won (US$2.92 million) worth of funding will go to less than a quarter of 47 applicants. Some called the selection "arbitrary" and vowed to boycott it.
"The government selected projects that are aimed at helping disadvantaged groups like toddlers and infants, mothers and the disabled on grounds that they contribute to the people's livelihoods, their urgency and effects," the Unification Ministry said in a statement.
The funding shrank considerably from last year, when the ministry spent more than 10 billion won for 40 aid groups. Spending cuts in other North Korea projects were also evident, as South Korea executed only 2.8 percent of its yearly budget for economic and humanitarian aid to North Korea during the first half of this year, or 42.42 billion won out of 1.5 trillion won. Seoul officials cite international sanctions over North Korea's nuclear and missile activity and the protracted stalemate in inter-Korean relations as reasons for the hardening aid policy.
An umbrella group of 56 Seoul-based aid organizations, the Korea NGO Council for Cooperation with North Korea, called an emergency meeting and vowed not to accept the funding unless its selection criteria is fully explained. Secretive selection only fuels internal rifts and rivalry, it said.
"This decision will only drive our aid projects, which continued cooperatively for nearly 10 years, to division and competition. I wonder if this arbitrary selection is a way of taming non-governmental organizations," Park Hyun-seok from Rose Club Korea, a Christian group focused on medical aid, said in an emergency meeting between aid groups. Rose Club lost its bid for funding.
But signs of a rift emerged among the aid organizations, as some cited the urgency of their stalled missions in the North. Kang Young-shik of the Korean Sharing Movement, which emerged as one of the major beneficiaries with 540 million won in funding, said his organization will accept the money, as the umbrella organization has no binding force over its members.
"It is for each organization to decide. And we believe this fund should be released if there isn't more expected anytime soon," Kang said.
In a unanimous call, the aid groups urged the government to lift a ban on humanitarian aid shipments and to stop monitoring trips to North Korea, actions put in place after the North's nuclear test in May. The restrictions have prevented not only aid from state coffers, but also private donations, from reaching North Koreans.
Sue Kinsler, a Korean-American and head of the Lighthouse Foundation, which helps orphans and the disabled in the North, said the living conditions there have notably deteriorated, with bread factories running short of flour and children wearing the same clothes her organization sent last year.
"We also wanted to bring underwear and some clothes for the children, but we were told those items are not allowed," Kinsler, who visited North Korea last week with 18 tons of flour, soybeans, sugar and vegetable oil, said. "I saw with my eyes they are experiencing serious food shortages in the midst of the international sanctions."
Kim Nam-sik, director general of the ministry's Inter-Korean Exchanges and Cooperation Bureau who attended the aid groups' meeting, said the government will consider expanding humanitarian aid and cross-border visits, but its efforts are limited by larger international circumstances. While U.N. financial and other sanctions are in place to curb the communist state's nuclear and missile activity, the government cannot go against the international trend, he said.
"The government understands the difficulties that aid organizations are faced with and will try to expand its funding and allow more visits to North Korea. But I must say there are restrictions to such efforts, with the U.N. sanctions. The situation cannot be the same after a nuclear test," Kim said.
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