(ATTN: ADDS more info, background from 4th para)
SEOUL, March 22 (Yonhap) -- South Korea approved Friday the first shipment of humanitarian aid by a private charity group to North Korea since President Park Geun-hye took office last month.
"This latest approval was given for the pure humanitarian need to help tuberculosis patients in North Korea," unification ministry spokesman Kim Hyung-suk said.
Under the approval, Eugene Bell, a South Korean charity group, will ship tuberculosis medicine worth 678 million won (US$606,500 to eight tuberculosis clinics run by the South Korean group in North Korea. The shipment is expected to be delivered in April, the official said.
This marks the first aid package approved by the ministry since Park took office on Feb. 25. The last aid request was granted in November last year under President Lee Myung-bak.
The latest gesture comes as bilateral relations have fallen to a low ebb with the North threatening to use its nuclear weapons against South Korea and the U.S. for carrying out annual joint military drills. Pyongyang has received flak from the international community for detonating a nuclear device on Feb. 12.
"The approval is strictly for humanitarian purposes and should not be read as a message to condone North Korea's recent provocations," Kim said.
"The planned medicine aid can help cure about 500 multidrug-resistant tuberculosis patients in the North whose lives would be at serious risk without the medicine," the spokesman said. It is difficult for North Korea to produce quality medicine to cure the difficult type of tuberculosis, he added.
Multidrug-resistant tuberculosis is defined as tuberculosis that is resistant to several types of drugs, a strain that is relatively difficult to treat and requires far more expensive medicine than easier cases of the disease.
He added that "this latest measure is expected to help the South and the North build trust."
President Park has repeatedly said despite relations with the North, she will continue to allow humanitarian aid to less-privileged North Koreans as part of her signature North Korean policy to build trust with the country. She, however, pledged to sternly respond to any provocations by the North.
"The spread of multidrug-resistant tuberculosis is so serious that North Korea is judged to have missed the crucial 'golden time' to root out the tuberculosis," Stephen Linton, the chairman of Eugene Bell, said in a news conference in November following a two-week visit to the country.
The charity foundation has been running a medical service program for tuberculosis patients in the North since 2000 and sends drugs on a regular basis to the impoverished country.
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