*** INTER-KOREAN RELATIONS
S. Korea Has No Plan to Resume Rice Aid to North Despite Thawing Ties
SEOUL (Yonhap) -- South Korea has no immediate plan to resume rice and fertilizer aid to North Korea, despite the North's series of fence-mending moves, officials said Aug. 27. Seoul suspended government-to-government aid last year as Pyongyang boycotted dialogue with the conservative Lee Myung-bak administration for its tough policy toward the socialist country.
As North Korea was shifting to a conciliatory mode in recent weeks, speculation grew that Seoul may respond with rice and fertilizer aid. "The government's position over food and fertilizer remains unchanged. To resume massive food and fertilizer aid, there should be consultations first between the two governments," a ranking Unification Ministry official told reporters at a background briefing.
The official said the just-closed inter-Korean Red Cross talks aimed at arranging reunions of separated families "have nothing to do with" the kind of consultations Seoul requires over aid resumption. The family reunion talks, the first such dialogue in nearly two years, were held at the North's Mt. Kumgang resort for three days from Aug. 26.
Since the landmark first inter-Korean summit in 2000, South Korea's liberal governments have sent 300,000-500,000 tons of rice to North Korea almost every year. Even when North Korea conducted its first nuclear test in 2006, South Korea continued the aid, albeit at a lower level of 100,000 tons for that year. Fertilizer aid has also continued since 1999. Both items were entirely suspended after Lee took office in February last year.
But non-food aid, like medicine and medical equipment for children and mothers, continued through international organizations like UNICEF and WHO. Seoul also recently resumed a small extent of humanitarian aid through non-governmental organizations.
Another ministry official, on customary condition of anonymity, said that besides the nuclear issue and progress in inter-Korean dialogue, South Korea will also consider North Korea's food situation and local public opinion in resuming the rice and fertilizer aid.
During a European tour in July, Lee said, "Even if we give fertilizer and food to the North, that doesn't guarantee good inter-Korean relations." He also said Seoul's primary objective is to "make North Korea give up nuclear weapons."
The unification ministry and U.N. agencies expect North Korea's harvest will fall short of consumption by more than 1 million tons of food this year. About 8.7 million North Koreans, out of the country's population of 24 million, will run short of food, they say.
Pyongyang, under U.N. sanctions, has extended a series of conciliatory moves toward Seoul recently, restoring a hotline, lifting cross-border traffic restrictions and agreeing to resume reunions of families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War.
North Korea Releases Four Detained South Korean Fishermen
SEOUL (Yonhap) -- Four South Korean fishermen returned home Aug. 29 aboard their boat after being released following 30 days of detention in North Korea, the latest move to ease tension on the divided Korean Peninsula.
North Korea freed the Southern fishing boat, the Yeonan-ho, at the eastern sea border at 5 p.m., South Korea's maritime police said in a news release, clearing a major roadblock in inter-Korean relations.
"I am glad to be back home," said Park Gwang-seon, the skipper of the fishing boat. "We must say sorry to the people as well as the government for causing this trouble."
After being released by North Korea, the fishing boat, sailing under its own power, arrived at the eastern port city of Sokcho at 8:25 p.m., escorted by two coast guard patrol boats, police officials said. The crewmen were soon moved to a military base for debriefing.
Families were overjoyed. "I was so worried, but now I'm very happy that my husband is back," said 49-year old Lee Ah-na, the wife of captain Park Kwang-sun. She later met her husband at an undisclosed place.
Maritime police said a preliminary medical checkup showed that despite the long hardship, the fishermen were in relatively good health.
The fishermen were seized July 30 after their boat strayed into North Korean waters after its satellite navigation system malfunctioned, according to an earlier police announcement.
North Korea had insisted that the boat illegally intruded into its territorial waters, but the communist state informed South Korea of its decision to set it free Aug. 29.
The release was the latest in a string of North Korea's conciliatory gestures in recent months. Pyongyang sent a high-level delegation to Seoul in late August to mourn the late former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung who died of pneumonia Aug. 18
The North's communist leadership is known to have high respect for the late South Korean president who actively pushed cross-border rapprochement while in office in 1998-2003 under his trademark "sunshine" policy.
The late South Korean president held the first-ever inter-Korean summit with the North's top leader, Kim Jong-il, in 2000 that helped drastically ease tension on the Peninsula. That meeting helped him win the Nobel Peace Prize that year.
North Korea also released a detained South Korean worker who was stationed in an inter-Korean industrial estate, lifted cross-border traffic restrictions and restored a cross-border hotline.
Koreas Normalize Border Traffic as Ties Improve
SEOUL (Yonhap) -- South and North Korea on Sept. 1 normalized cross-border traffic and exchanged information pertaining to the reunions of families separated by war half a century ago, boosting joint projects that had suffered as a result of deteriorating political relations.
Hundreds of South Korean workers and cargo trucks traveled to North Korea on a freer timeframe, and more were allowed to stay there after Pyongyang lifted traffic restrictions imposed in December to protest Seoul's hardline policy toward it.
Border traffic "was normalized to the level prior to December 1st last year," Unification Ministry spokeswoman Lee Jong-joo said in a press briefing. "Entry by South Koreans to the North is smoothly underway."
At the Inter-Korean Transit Office, a gateway to North Korea, relieved commuters and cargo trucks carrying raw materials lined up en route to a South Korean-run park in the North's border town of Kaesong. Businesses investing in the joint park were upbeat that the restored traffic will resuscitate sales.
"We get more customer phone calls these days," Ok Sung-seok, chief of apparel maker Nine Mode Co. that operates at the joint park with about 200 North Korean workers, said over the telephone.
Ok said company sales had fallen by 30 percent since December as buyers, mostly South Korean department stores, cut back orders, worried about the growing instability of the joint park. North Korea banned border traffic several times in March to protest a South Korea-U.S. military exercise and detained a South Korean worker for months for criticizing its regime. The Hyundai worker, Yu Seong-jin, was released in August.
"This traffic normalization, along with the family reunion talks, cleared up buyers' anxiety. Our sales are returning to normal, to the level of 2008," Ok said.
North Korea had limited cross-border entry by South Koreans to three passage times in the morning and their return to three times in the afternoon. Cargo train services were suspended, and the number of South Koreans allowed to stay at the joint park was halved to 880.
In a significant shift toward conciliation in August, North Korean leader Kim Jong-il met with a major South Korean investor, Hyundai Group Chairwoman Hyun Jeong-eun, and agreed to lift the restrictions to "energize" the Kaesong park.
Cross-border entry into the North is now possible 12 times a day, and return 11 times. The number of South Koreans allowed to stay at the joint park was also restored to the 1,600-1,700 level.
The ministry spokeswoman said about 720 South Koreans traveled to and from North Korea on the first day of the normalization, about the same as when restricted.
The joint industrial park houses more than 100 South Korean firms operating with about 40,000 North Korean workers, producing clothing, kitchenware, electronic equipment and other labor-intensive goods.
In another fence-mending move, the Koreas exchanged the names of 200 people looking for relatives from whom they were separated by the 1950-53 Korean War. In the process of identifying and locating the relatives, the lists will be narrowed down to half their current size for the Sept. 26-Oct. 1 reunions. "Those who are old and looking for direct family members, such as their spouse, parents or siblings, are selected first in the final list," Song Soon-hwa, a Red Cross official in Seoul, said.
The oldest South Korean candidate is a 98-year-old man looking for his wife and son in the North. On North Korea's list, an 85-year-old woman was searching for relatives in the South, according to the Red Cross office.
The family reunions were agreed upon during last week's inter-Korean talks at the North's Mt. Kumgang resort on the east coast. Reunions were last held in October 2007 and did not continue after President Lee Myung-bak took office in Seoul last year.
On Sept. 2, South and North Korea reopened their military hotline in a western district more than a year after Pyongyang suspended it due to technical problems.
The direct communication channel, operated by the military authorities of the two sides, "began normal operations today after a test yesterday," Unification Ministry spokesman Chun Hae-sung said Sept. 2.
The Koreas have operated two major military hotlines -- one in the west since 2002 and the other in the east since 2003 -- to assure the safety of South Koreans traveling to North Korea over the heavily fortified border. Through the eastern line, South Korea had notified the North of tourists visiting the North's scenic Mt. Kumgang resort on the east coast. The western channel was used for communications regarding South Korean workers and cargo trucks commuting to a joint industrial park in the North's western border town of Kaesong.
North Korea suspended the western-side channel in May last year, citing technical glitches in aging optical cables. Pyongyang had demanded replacements from Seoul, but the new cables were not provided.
The spokesman said the restored hotline still uses old cables, and "for the matter of optical cable assistance, there should be a separate review or consultations with the North."
Pyongyang severed the eastern-line channel in December and restored it last month as part of a series of fence-mending moves.
North Korea had also agreed to resume cargo train services across the western border, but Seoul has no immediate plan to do so, the spokesman said. The railway service started in 2007 to deliver raw materials to the Kaesong park, but cargo traffic volume is currently too low to require the use of trains, he said.
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