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(2nd LD) S. Korea considers resuming rice aid to N. Korea: officials

All Headlines 16:31 August 23, 2010

(ATTN: ADDS comments from special affairs minister nominee in paras 10-11)

SEOUL, Aug. 23 (Yonhap) -- South Korea's government and ruling party have been in talks to consider resuming food aid to North Korea that has been halted due to deteriorating inter-Korean relations, as part of efforts to improve its relations with Pyongyang and to control its rising rice stockpiles, lawmakers said Monday.

In a meeting with senior government officials on Sunday, Ahn Sang-soo, chairman of the ruling Grand National Party (GNP), raised the necessity of considering resumption of rice shipments to Pyongyang, citing the North's worsening food crisis in the wake of recent severe floods, according to GNP spokesman Ahn Hyoung-hwan.

The GNP chairman also said that a North Korea-bound rice shipment would help Seoul promote rice consumption and cut costs for the state's stockpile of rice, particularly ahead of the government's upcoming annual rice purchase.

South Korea has previously sent 300,000-400,000 tons of rice to its hunger-stricken neighbor annually, but has not made a delivery since President Lee Myung-bak took office in early 2008.

"But the aid to North Korea should be reviewed multilaterally in terms of humanitarian perspectives as well as international relations," the spokesman said.

The Unification Ministry, the main government arm handling affairs with North Korea, denied that any plan to resume rice aid to the communist state was in the making.

"The government's position on aid to North Korea has not changed," ministry spokesman Chun Hae-sung said in a briefing. "There are no plans currently to review the matter of rice aid."

Yoo Jeong-bok, a GNP lawmaker tapped to head the Ministry of Food, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, backed Ahn, however, saying in a confirmation hearing that rice aid should be considered.

"It is worth reviewing, not just for the purpose of taking care of the domestic rice pileup, but also from the perspectives of humanitarianism and inter-Korean reconciliation and cooperation," he said.

Lee Jae-oh, President Lee's nominee for special affairs minister, also supported the resumption of rice shipment to North Korea, saying in his confirmation hearing that the government needs to review food aid to the North from a humanitarian perspective.

"We have to consider resuming rice aid to North Korea from the humanitarian perspective. The humanitarian grounds should be taken into consideration separately from political reasons," the nominee said, noting he is ready to play an unofficial role in improving relations between Seoul and Pyongyang, if appointed to the Cabinet post.

Inter-Korean relations worsened last year when the North conducted long-range missile and nuclear tests. Tensions have risen since the South Korean patrol ship Cheonan sank in March from what investigators said was a North Korean torpedo attack that killed 46 sailors.

Earlier this month, a group of five South Koreans crossed the heavily armed border into North Korea to deliver 400 million won (US$340,000) worth of anti-malaria aid despite hostility between the divided states.

The crossing marked the first South Korean civilian visit to the communist state since Seoul banned trips to North Korea three months ago in protest over the sinking of the South Korean warship near their Yellow Sea border.


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