(ATTN: ADDS ministry official's remark in paras 12-13)
By Koh Byung-joon
SEOUL, July 18 (Yonhap) -- Discussions are currently under way with the United States to get sanctions exemptions for South Korea's plan to send food aid to North Korea, a government source here said Thursday.
The Seoul government and the World Food Programme (WFP) are trying to secure ships that will be used to transport 50,000 tons of rice to the impoverished state struggling with worsening food shortages, he added.
"Negotiations are under way between the WFP and the U.S. on sanctions exemptions that are needed for ships and other equipment to be used in delivering the food to the North," the source told Yonhap News Agency on condition of anonymity.
"We have also set out to secure the necessary ships, but completing the process will likely take some time given that it has to do with sanctions exemptions," he added.
Last month, South Korea announced its plan to provide 50,000 tons of domestically harvested rice to North Korea through the WFP.
The U.S. announced additional sanctions against North Korea in 2017 under which any airplane or ship making a trip to the country is banned from entering American territory for 180 days.
It marks the first time for South Korea to provide rice to North Korea since 2010, when it sent 5,000 tons to support its efforts to recover from flood damage. It will also be the first time Seoul has sent locally harvested rice to the North through an international agency.
Seoul is pushing to send the food assistance to the North before the lean season starts in September. The ministry has said that Seoul aims to make the first shipment to the North this month.
South Korea and the WFP signed an official contract over Seoul's food assistance plan for North Korea on July 11. The government earlier said that the details of exactly when and how the rice will be delivered to the North have yet to be worked out.
The source said that ships will likely transport the rice using a "direct route" between the two Koreas without stopping by a third country, a process intended to save time and transport the aid to those in need as soon as possible.
It is rare for a ship to sail directly between the two Koreas, which remain technically in a state of war as the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a truce, not a peace treaty.
An official of the unification ministry handling inter-Korean affairs told reporters that a direct-route shipment of the rice between the two Koreas is one of the options being reviewed by the WFP, which is in charge of its delivery and distribution.
"It appears to be effective to go straight to the North as it will cost less oil and time," he said. "It is the WFP that's in charge. ... It will make a decision (on the matter)."
North Korea is reportedly facing deepening food shortages apparently caused by crushing global sanctions and years of unfavorable weather conditions.
The WFP and the Food and Agriculture Organization earlier reported, based on a visit to North Korea, that the country's crop output last year hit the lowest level since 2008, adding that an estimated 10 million people, about 40 percent of the population, are in urgent need of food.
Observers say that an ongoing drought in many parts of North Korea could make things worse for its already strained food supply conditions.
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