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Unification minister says aid is not political

May 22,2019
Unification Minister Kim Yeon-chul on Tuesday said Seoul’s plan to provide food aid to North Korea is purely for humanitarian purposes and is separate from any political plan to improve relations with Pyongyang.

“If I had to sum up the principle [behind the food aid plan], it would be that ‘a hungry child knows no politics,’” Kim said during a press conference at a convention hall just north of Seoul.

This phrase, the minister explained, was spoken by former U.S. President Ronald Reagan in 1984 in the aftermath of a controversy that followed after Washington withheld food aid to Ethiopia for political reasons. After the incident, the United States and the international community made it a principle not to attach political conditions to humanitarian aid, Kim said. He added that Seoul would also assist those prone to serious food insecurity in the North based on this principle.

Kim went on to say that while the ministry was canvassing public opinion on the matter through discussions with various “policy clients” like humanitarian or religious groups, it is also conducting working-level preparations to deliver the aid in line with the Blue House’s announcement last Friday.

Kim also brought up the Unification Ministry’s plans to hold video-based reunions of families divided between the two Koreas. Only around 55,000 of the total of 133,000 people who applied to meet their families in the North are still alive - a quarter of whom are in their 90s - the minister said. Given that the South’s venue for these planned video conferences is already fully prepared, Kim said his ministry would actively push forward with the reunions.

As to how to solve the ongoing lull in dialogue between North Korea, the United States and South Korea, a high-level government official at the same press conference said that Washington and Seoul were in the midst of “various types of preparations” to break the stalemate. The official added that U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun appeared to have numerous plans in mind when he last visited the South earlier this month. Amid a hail of questions by reporters, the official was mum on the details on Seoul’s precise plans to restart talks, and partly attributed the stalemate to internal changes in Pyongyang.

“On one hand there are internal organizational changes within North Korea itself, and we are keeping close watch on how the situation may change once these factors are settled,” he said.

The official’s words appeared to be a reference to the reported sacking last month of Kim Yong-chol as head of the United Front Department, the North’s leading agency tasked with engagement and espionage related to the South. To a question about whether the North has a response to South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s formal proposal for another inter-Korean summit, the official implied that no such reply has been given through both official and unofficial channels.

“My thought is that it is better if a [future] inter-Korean summit pursues a practical rather than a symbolic purpose if it were to serve the purpose of restarting a process toward another U.S.-North Korea summit,” the official said. He added that observers should not expect that Seoul would send a special envoy to the North to arrange a summit, like before previous inter-Korean talks. “What goes on above the surface is not separate from what goes on below,” he said, in reference to official and unofficial communication channels between the Koreas. “There may be a time gap, but never do these parts move in different directions.”

BY SHIM KYU-SEOK [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]