The South Korean government is poised to send food aid to North Korea at a time when denuclearization talks between the North and the US need a fresh boost. It is doubtful, however, that the donation alone would be able to draw Pyongyang back to the disarmament talks.
Last week’s announcement in Seoul to provide the North with $8 million worth of food aid came as no surprise. The government of President Moon Jae-in has repeatedly expressed its intention to offer humanitarian aid and promote inter-Korean economic cooperation.
The recent appeal of the World Food Program and the Food and Agricultural Organization also encouraged the Moon government to go ahead with its food aid offer.
The WFP and FAO said that North Korea’s crop harvest is at its lowest level since 2008, and about 10 million people, or about 40 percent of its population, are in urgent need of food, the shortage amounting to about 1.36 million metric tons.
Seoul officials said the $8 million food aid will help North Koreans improve the nutrition of children and pregnant women and their health. Basically, any such relief efforts are necessary from a humanitarian perspective. Moreover, as the same Koreans, people in the more prosperous southern part of the peninsula ought not to ignore the plight of their brethren in the North.
Moon and his aides also may be hoping to formulate an environment conducive to reopening US-North Korea denuclearization talks in time for President Donald Trump’s visit to Seoul late next month.
Trump is scheduled to visit Japan for a meeting of G-20 leaders and North Korea is expected to figure prominently during his visit,the first since his talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Vietnam fell apart in February.
Seoul officials said the US government agreed to the plan to provide the North with food assistance, but concerns still persist that it may dent the harshest-ever international sanctions against the North’s nuclear and missile provocations.
It is against this backdrop that some experts argue that the food situation in the North has been exaggerated. In fact, there have been reports that food prices in North Korea have gone down recently.
This raises the possibility that its appeal for international food donations is more aimed at seeking a loophole in the international alliance for isolating the regime for its past provocations than feeding its people.
The North’s persistent demand that South Korea reopen the Kaesong industrial park and Kumgangsan tour program “without caring about the position of foreign forces,” namely the US, must also be related to its strategy to cause cracks in international sanctions.
Another important point is that the food assistance, which would be the first of its kind in 10 years, and the Seoul government’s decision to permit domestic businessmen to visit their Kaesong factories -- the first time since 2016 -- could be seen as appeasement toward the North’s recent military provocations.
Both Moon and Trump made it clear that the North’s recent firing of a short-range missile would not affect their efforts to draw Kim back to the negotiating table. But only providing the nation with incentives could further embolden the recalcitrant regime to demand more concessions without taking any more disarmament actions.
Latest public opinion surveys in South Korea reflect such a skepticism. A recent poll found that 47 percent of the respondents opposed food aid to the North, compared with 44 percent who supported the plan. More troublingly, 61 percent of those polled said they did not believe North Korea would fulfill its denuclearization promise.
It is too naive to believe that sending rice packages and implementing some inter-Korean economic cooperation programs would be enough to make the North change its attitude. Making it rethink its obsession with nuclear weapons and missiles will not be so easy and any incentives at this juncture should be made with caution.