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South spends millions on rice that North doesn’t want

Sept 23,2019
South Korea made 1.3 million bags last month to store 50,000 tons of rice aid for the North, according to a government source, despite refusal from Pyongyang to take the food assistance.

Data obtained by Rep. You Min-bong of the main opposition Liberty Korea Party on this expenditure showed around 800 million won ($672,588) had been spent on producing these bags, each of which can store up to 40 kilograms (88 pounds) of rice.

The same data showed the South Korean government had provided the World Food Programme (WFP), the UN-affiliated organization in charge of sending the aid package, with around $11.77 million as a project management cost for shipping rice to the North.

The money used to make the rice bags came from a special fund under the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs used to manage the government’s grain stores, while the $11.77 million given to the WFP came from the Unification Ministry’s Inter-Korean Exchange and Cooperation Fund, a special budget allocated for cross-border exchanges.

In June, South Korea announced its plan to send 50,000 tons of domestically grown rice as humanitarian aid to the North through the WFP in response to the country’s severe food insecurity. Around 127.7 billion won had been earmarked for the project, including shipping costs.

Yet for weeks Pyongyang remained silent on whether it would take the aid until late July, when WFP officials told Seoul that North Korea’s Foreign Ministry officials expressed an inclination to reject the aid. Since then, the rice has been sitting in South Korean storage with an ever-diminishing likelihood that it will reach the mouths of North Korean citizens.

Unification Minister Kim Yeon-chul on Sept. 16 told lawmakers at the National Assembly that preparations to send the aid were temporarily halted as a result of the North’s reticence, though he did not explain when exactly this had occurred.

On Tuesday, a senior official at the Unification Ministry told reporters that the rice bags had already been fully made when the North expressed its unwillingness the accept the aid, at which point all preparations to ship the food were put on hold.

The reason all 1.3 million bags had been manufactured at the same time was to cut costs, the official said.

While the ministry had initially set its deadline to send the aid to North Korea by the end of September - around the beginning of the country’s harvest season - there is no indication from Pyongyang that it will ever take this aid.

On Sept. 16, North Korea’s leading state newspaper, the Rodong Sinmun, announced crop harvests had begun in the country.

Yet the Unification Ministry’s decision to spend money on the aid despite the uncertainty has earned it criticism. Rep. You, who investigated the matter, said he found it hard to understand why the ministry was so quick to spend money when the rice bags could be made in a matter of a week or two.

To this, a ministry official said the portion of the budget that had already been used in regards to the food aid was not large, and that the manufacturing of the rice bags had been slowed down to meet the pace of diplomatic efforts to send the aid.

BY BAEK MIN-JEONG AND SHIM KYU-SEOK [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]