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North fumes over food aid, again

Wheat from Russia may be meeting its emergency needs
May 27,2019
Pyongyang’s state media on Sunday again slammed Seoul’s plan to send humanitarian aid to the North, claiming that the food issue was “trivial and secondary” when compared to inter-Korean economic cooperation.

In a strongly worded editorial, the Tongil Sinbo, one of the North’s official outlets covering South Korean issues, said the South was trying to trick the public into thinking it was doing its best to fulfill inter-Korean agreements by putting humanitarian aid at the forefront while neglecting “fundamental issues” related to economic cooperation.

“Does [the South] think that it can solve things by focusing on the secondary and trivial matters of humanitarian aid and non-political exchanges?” the piece read. “It must begin to act to faithfully implement the fundamental issues listed in the inter-Korean declaration.”

The fundamental issues stressed in the editorial, while not explicitly stated, appears to refer to promises of reopening joint economic projects like the Kaesong Industrial Complex that the two Koreas’ leaders signed at their third summit in Pyongyang last September.

The Tongil Sinbo piece also criticized Seoul for showing hostility by carrying out military exercises with a foreign power, a reference to the joint air, land and sea drills with the United States carried out throughout May. It implied that this was also a fundamental problem that went against the agreement to reduce military tensions included in the Pyongyang declaration.

Similar articles from other state outlets like Uriminzokkiri or Arirang Maeri from the last few days contained similar critical messages leveled at Seoul’s aid plan, which the South’s Blue House made official on May 18, starting with the provision of $8 million to international organizations to supply nutritional aid to children and pregnant women in North Korea. According to the United Nations (UN) and the World Food Programme (WFP), which conducted two joint on-site assessments in the country last month and November, the North faces a food deficit of around 1.36 million metric tons that has left over 10 million people lacking sufficient food.

Part of why Pyongyang is responding so callously to Seoul’s aid plan in spite of the serious issues it faces may be the fact that its emergency needs are already being met by its traditional diplomatic partners. On Saturday, the North’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported in a short dispatch that it had received an unspecified amount of wheat from Russia through the WFP.

Moscow already made public that it was mulling sending around 50,000 tons of wheat to the North upon its request back in February, and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s first summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in late April may have sealed this deal.

There is some dispute as to whether these state media reports should be treated as official opinion from Pyongyang, as the South’s Unification Ministry officials have noted in previous occasions. When the North wants its messages to be regarded as an official view, it often puts out a statement from its Foreign Ministry or stages an interview between state media and its officials.

With this considered, these editorials attacking the South may be part of Pyongyang’s larger plan to dial up pressure on Seoul to break its coordination with Washington on sanctions and resume cross-border economic exchanges.

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