By Koh Byung-joon
SEOUL, May 8 (Yonhap) -- Talk of food aid to North Korea is gaining traction after U.S. President Donald Trump expressed support for it despite Pyongyang's recent firing of a barrage of projectiles into the East Sea in defiance of the United States.
Trump's blessing could, in turn, be seen as a testament to the seriousness of food shortages in the impoverished nation amid projections from U.N. agencies that millions of North Koreans are in need of food aid after the North's grain production fell to the lowest level in a decade last year.
On Tuesday (Seoul time), Trump said during his telephone conversation with South Korean President Moon Jae-in that Seoul's possible provision of food to North Korea will be "very timely" and "a positive move," according to Cheong Wa Dae.
Food aid to the North has been suspended amid sanctions.
Sanctions, technically, do not ban the provision of humanitarian assistance to Pyongyang, but Washington has been opposed to it for fear that such help could end up in its military and possibly undermine the global sanctions regime at a time when little progress has been made in denuclearization talks.
Amid global sanctions, the North's food situation has been further aggravated by floods and droughts.
Last week, the World Food Program and the Food and Agriculture Organization unveiled a joint report in which they estimated that North Korea's crop output last year hit the lowest level since 2008 and that it must import around 1.36 million tons of additional grain to make up for food shortages this year.
About 10.1 million North Koreans, or 40 percent of its total population, are in need of food aid, the agencies said in the report after an emergency assessment of the country's food shortage situation by U.N. officials from March 29 to April 12.
The field assessment came after North Korea's top envoy to the United Nations, Kim Song, requested emergency food assistance in February, saying the country will be short of around 1.5 million tons of food this year.
In what appears to reflect the sense of urgency, North Korean state media have repeatedly emphasized the importance of rice production ahead of the full-swing farming season, saying, "Rice is more precious than gold."
Now that Trump expressed his backing, South Korea is expected to speed up aid preparations.
In a regular press briefing Wednesday, Lee Sang-min, spokesperson of the unification ministry that handles inter-Korean affairs, told reporters that the government is concerned about food shortages in the North and will closely cooperate with the international community to determine how much, when and in what method food assistance will be provided to the North.
Food aid is also expected to be a key topic for discussions that U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Policy Stephen Biegun will have in Seoul this week. Biegun was set to arrive in Seoul later Wednesday for a four-day visit.
Nuclear negotiations between Pyongyang and Washington have been stalemated after the second summit between Kim and Trump in late February ended without an agreement due to differences over Pyongyang's denuclearization steps and Washington's sanctions relief.
Experts see the North's firing of a barrage of projectiles as a carefully calibrated move by Pyongyang to pressure Washington into showing more flexibility in their nuclear negotiations without going as far as derailing the talks.
Washington also appears intent on keeping the nuclear talks on track.
In a tweet hours after the projectile firing, Trump voiced his confidence that the North Korean leader will keep his promise on denuclearization.
"Anything in this very interesting world is possible, but I believe that Kim Jong Un fully realizes the great economic potential of North Korea, & will do nothing to interfere or end it," he tweeted. "He also knows that I am with him & does not want to break his promise to me. Deal will happen!"
Trump's support for food assistance to the North can seen as part of efforts to stave off provocative action that could derail the overall negotiation talks, while urging Pyongyang to come out again to the negotiating table, experts say.
"Trump appears to have toned down his comments on the North's strike drill, which could have sent tensions spiraling out of control by inviting reciprocal actions from Washington as has been the case before," said Hong Min, a senior researcher at the Korea Institute for National Unification.
"Instead of criticism, Trump seems to have opted for a generous approach to what some see as North Korea's latest provocation in order to prevent it from carrying out additional such steps and keep dialogue on track with Pyongyang," he added.
The humanitarian assistance card could serve as a boon for South Korea as well in that it could provide a breakthrough in the stagnated cross-border exchanges apparently tied down by little progress in denuclearization talks.
North Korea has put on hold major cross-border projects, voicing its complaints with South Korea being lukewarm in efforts to improve inter-Korean relations being dictated by Washington's push for sanctions.
"At a time when the sanctions issue stands in the way of denuclearization talks, humanitarian assistance could play a positive role," Hong said. "For the U.S., it could send a signal that it is ready to talk with Pyongyang. For South Korea, it could help move the stagnant inter-Korean relations forward again."
Critics said, however, that providing food aid to the North could amount to rewarding bad behavior.
Thae Yong-ho, who served as the No. 2 diplomat in the North Korean Embassy in London before his 2016 defection to South Korea, said in a newspaper column that it's been part of the North's playbook to use provocations to extract aid and other concessions.
"Kim Jong-un is using the food ploy again, that it's going to give peace if it's given food," Thae said in the column. "Kim Jong-un appears to be putting spurs to the pace of food aid out of concern assistance may not arrive by the end of the year."
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