SK offers to ship food aid to NK

SEOUL: South Korea Monday offered to ship about 10,000 tons of corn to North Korea, in what would be the first official aid to its hungry neighbour for almost two years.

The South also offered to provide 20 tons of milk powder and medicine for children, pregnant women and other vulnerable people, the unification ministry said.

The proposed shipment through the Red Cross would be the first official one since a conservative government came to power in Seoul in February 2008 and linked major assistance to progress on denuclearisation.

After months of bitter hostility, the communist North began making peace overtures to the South in late summer. Persistent media reports say the two sides have held preliminary talks about a possible summit.

The figure is a fraction of the aid offered in previous years. The unification ministry admitted it was far less than needed but said the North must mend relations before shipments could be increased.

A third of North Korean women and young children are malnourished and the country will run short of almost 1.8 million tons of food this year, the United Nations World Food Programme said in a report last month.

"We cannot say 10,000 tons is sufficient in view of North Korea's food shortage and other conditions," said ministry spokeswoman Lee Jong-Joo.

"We are providing purely humanitarian aid," she said, adding Seoul would use about four billion won (3.39 million dollars) from a state fund to buy corn from abroad.

"There is no change in our position that massive food aid depends on how relations between the two Koreas develop," she said.

The ministry also said it would provide 949 million won for several local humanitarian organisations operating in the North, the second such funding since an allocation was made in August.

Under previous liberal governments Seoul sent around 400,000 tons of rice and 300,000 tons of fertiliser a year to the North, which suffers persistent severe food shortages.

Pyongyang sought aid from Seoul at talks on October 16 on arranging more reunions for families separated since the 1950-1953 Korean War. The talks ended without agreement pending consideration of the request.

North Korea has yet to respond to the latest offer, made through the Red Cross. But Yonhap news agency said it was likely coordinated in advance before the announcement.

Last year the South offered 50,000 tons of corn but the North rejected the shipment amid high tensions.