North Korea is willing to accept aid from South Korea, officials say

Northkorea

North Korea is willing to accept aid from South Korea after devastating floods left scores dead and tens of thousands homeless, South Korean officials said Monday. But what the country will get and how has yet to be decided.

If the two countries can reach agreement on an aid package, this would be the first time that North Korea has accepted aid from its southern neighbor since Kim Jong Un became leader of the isolated country -– a possible breakthrough after years of chilly relations between the two countries.

South Korea halted aid to North Korea nearly two years ago after North Korea shelled a southern island, killing four people; it later provided $5.7 million for malnourished children through UNICEF. Past talk of aid for North Korea has been hampered by disagreements over what will be provided and how it will be monitored, a reflection of fears that aid meant for the needy will be funneled instead to the elite.

Even agreeing to talk about resuming aid was done cautiously: North Korea signaled that it would accept aid by passing the message to Red Cross contacts in the village of Panmunjom, a South Korean Ministry of Unification official told Chosun Ilbo. South Korea had sent a cable a week earlier offering help. The talks are expected to happen through exchanged documents.

The offer comes as North Korea is reeling from summer floods and recent typhoons. State media have reported at least 170 people were killed and hundreds of thousands were displaced as the downpour destroyed homes. The World Food Program began dispatching aid in August, providing 22 pounds of maize per person after the waters flooded farmlands.

Outside experts say the flooding could give North Korea political cover to seek help for economic woes that go beyond the current disaster. The country, which faces chronic food shortages, is likely to come up short again within six months because harvests are expected to be meager, said Marcus Noland, deputy director of the Peterson Institute for International Economics.

“This could potentially be a big deal –- not so much because of whatever they provide immediately, but because it might start to break a diplomatic logjam that may need to be broken when the North Koreans really need food,” Noland said. “They need to get out of the stalemate they’re in.”

Providing aid could also give a political boost to the ruling conservative party in South Korea, which is facing a presidential election in December, said Charles K. Armstrong, director of the Center for Korean Research at Columbia University. That may be pushing the otherwise hard-line government to engage.

“Lee Myung-bak does not want to go down as the first president in over a decade to not have a breakthrough in North-South relations before he steps down,” Armstrong said.

A thaw in relations between the Koreas could also set the stage for the United States and North Korea to mend relations, since the Obama administration has insisted that South Korea be at the table during serious talks instead of dealing with North Korea one-on-one, Armstrong said.

But the agreement isn’t a done deal. The aid offer could be scuttled if South Korea demands strict monitoring that North Korea balks at, or tries to bring in other, stickier issues as part of the talks, Noland said. North Korea, in turn, is known for “biting the hand that feeds you,” lashing out after getting aid in the past, said Stephan Haggard of UC San Diego.

“Is it that surprising that the Lee Myung-bak government has generally stuck to its guns on the aid issue?” Haggard wrote in an email Tuesday.

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-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

Photo: Displaced North Korean women, left homeless by July flooding, walk among temporary tents set up in their destroyed neighborhood in Ungok, North Korea, on Aug. 13. Credit: David Guttenfelder / Associated Press

 
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