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North Korea Sees Humanitarian Aid as Leverage

FILE - South Korean trucks with food aid prepare to leave for North Korean city of Kaesong in Paju, South Korea, Sept. 21, 2012.
FILE - South Korean trucks with food aid prepare to leave for North Korean city of Kaesong in Paju, South Korea, Sept. 21, 2012.

So far North Korea has rejected South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s offers of unconditional humanitarian aid and cooperation.

Since he took office in early May, the new liberal South Korean leader has tried to balance strong support for military deterrence and international sanctions against Pyongyang’s continued nuclear and ballistic missiles provocations with increased engagement to restart inter-Korean dialogue and cooperation.

Humanitarian assistance

The government in Seoul has approved numerous requests from private charities to offer assistance to help alleviate the rampant poverty and poor health conditions in North Korea, where 84 percent of households have “borderline or poor food consumption,” one-third of children suffer from malnutrition, and the infant mortality rate is 33 percent, according to the United Nations.

But the Kim Jong Un government in Pyongyang has not permitted these overtures, citing Seoul's support for U.N. Security Council sanctions adopted to punish Pyongyang's recent missile provocations.

Last week, North Korea denied entry to the Korean Sharing Movement, a private relief organization that provides insecticides, diagnostic kits and nets to prevent malaria. According to the World Health Organization, North Korea had over 7,000 malaria cases in 2015. Other aid projects are also waiting for approval from North Korea.

The North Korean state-run newspaper Rodong Sinmun said in an editorial last week that, "Nobody can expect relations to improve just because they allow some humanitarian aid or civilian exchanges that the previous conservative clique halted."

Bong Young-shik, a political analyst with the Yonsei University Institute for North Korean Studies in Seoul, said Pyongyang is more interested in restarting major revenue generating projects like the Kaesong Industrial Complex and Kumgang Mountain tourism project, and is willing to hold up humanitarian aid as leverage to try to gain major concessions.

“If you’re mostly interested in getting the big prizes, you can just rule out losing some small prizes, which are humanitarian aid provided by South Korea,” he said.

Bong said Pyongyang is also likely waiting to see what may come out of the meeting between President Moon and U.S. President Donald Trump in Washington later this month.

Impossible demands

North Korea has also set a steep price for allowing future reunions of families that have been separated by the division of the Korean Peninsula at the end of World War II. The last such reunion was in 2015.

The South recently proposed trying to arrange a new reunion in August to mark the anniversary of the end of the Second World War. But Pyongyang demanded Seoul first return a group of North Korean defectors, including 12 restaurant workers who sought asylum in the South last year. North Korea charges that these defectors were abducted while South Korea says they voluntarily fled.

Ahn Chan-il, a North Korean defector and analyst with the World Institute of North Korean studies, said the Kim Jong Un leadership is making seemingly impossible demands to improve inter-Korean ties because it expects relations to actually get worse in the short term.

The North Korea official news agency on Saturday indicated Pyongyang is close to testing an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that could potentially reach the U.S. mainland. Such a severe provocation would be seen as a direct threat to U.S. national security. Ahn said it would draw, at the very least, much more severe sanctions, even from its main economic supporter China.

“If North Korea does it, Kim Jong Un knows well that China will prepare sanctions such as blocking the oil pipeline (between the two countries,)” Ahn said.

South Korea’s Unification Ministry said Monday that Seoul will “strongly respond to North Korea's missile provocations,” but will also “flexibly review private-level inter-Korean exchanges” to try to reduce tensions without degrading the effectiveness of sanctions against the North.

Youmi Kim contributed to this report.