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S. Korea not considering food aid to N. Korea: official

All Headlines 11:45 March 23, 2011

SEOUL, March 23 (Yonhap) -- South Korea is not considering food aid to North Korea, an official said Wednesday, dismissing a news report that the country has decided to follow suit if the United States decides to give assistance to the impoverished nation.

Potential food aid to the North has been a focus of attention after Pyongyang asked Washington to resume assistance earlier this year. U.S. officials have said they would decide on the request after assessing the situation in the communist nation.

Resumption of U.S. aid could possibly warm the countries' relations amid a nuclear standoff.

Officials from the World Food Program (WFP) and the Food and Agriculture Organization conducted an on-site inspection of the food situation in North Korea earlier this month. The team is expected to release a report on its findings as early as this weekend.

The report is expected to serve as a basis for a U.S. decision on the issue.

On Wednesday, a local newspaper reported, citing unidentified diplomatic sources, that South Korea has decided to provide assistance to the North, regardless of whether Pyongyang offers an apology for last year's two deadly attacks on the South, if the U.S. decides to resume aid.

"We are not considering food aid to the North at this point," a South Korean official said on condition of anonymity, dismissing the report. "We have to look at the WFP report first. I understand that the U.S. has not made any decision on that either."

The official also said a WFP assessment last November concluded that the North's food situation wasn't worse than previous years, and even if the upcoming report calls for emergency aid, it does not automatically mean that aid will resume.

"There should be evidence showing the North's food situation deteriorated seriously in just four months," he said.

However, other sources in the government said Seoul plans to consider the possibility of providing limited humanitarian assistance to the North after taking a look at the upcoming WFP report, though large-scale aid carrying political meaning won't be possible.

"After the international inspection team's report comes out, not only the U.S., but also our government will study whether to send humanitarian aid for the vulnerable class of people, such as infants and children," a source said on condition of anonymity.

"However, even if political issues are separated from humanitarian matters, it is difficult to provide large-scale assistance, and it is important to have a monitoring system in place to ensure that aid reaches those vulnerable," the source said.

Seoul plans to consult closely with Washington on the issue, the source said.

The destitute North has been calling for food aid from countries around the world as its economic woes deepened in the wake of international sanctions for its provocations. It has relied on outside assistance to feed its 24 million population since natural disasters and mismanagement devastated its economy in the mid-1990s.

South Korea apparently holds negative views on possible aid resumption to the North because it could undercut international pressure on Pyongyang to give up its nuclear programs and take responsibility for last year's attacks on the South -- the November shelling of the border island of Yeonpyeong and the March sinking of the warship Cheonan.

Critics have questioned the motives behind the North's all-out calls for food aid, saying last year's harvests were better than the year before. There are also suspicions that the regime might be trying to stock up on food for use for massive celebrations on the 100th birthday of the North's late national founder, Kim Il-sung, next year.

jschang@yna.co.kr
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