By Kim Se-jeong
Government officials and lawmakers are seemingly at odds over continuing rice aid and other humanitarian assistance to North Korea.
On Tuesday, Rep. Lee Koon-hyon of the ruling Grand National Party again urged the government and the party to decide on rice aid to Pyongyang before the Chuseok holiday (Sept. 21 to 23).
“About 300,000 to 400,000 tons of rice that used to go to North Korea annually hasn’t gone through in the current administration so we estimate there’s about 1.5 million tons in excess in the inventory this year,” Lee said in a party meeting Tuesday.
“The government should consider some special measures ... ,” he said.
His comments follow those made by senior party leaders and political appointees the day before.
Ahn Sang-soo, the leader of the governing Grand National Party, called for resuming humanitarian aid to North Korea, which is currently afflicted by floods in the area of Sinuiju. Lee’s picks for ministers echoed Ahn during their confirmation hearings.
Lee Jae-oh, the special affairs minister-nominee, told Monday lawmakers that “As Chuseok (Korea’s Thanksgiving) approaches, we need to consider sending rice to North Korea.” Yoo Jeong-bok, the agriculture minister-nominee, also urged the government to ship rice to the poverty-stricken regime.
Chun Hae-sung, the unification ministry’s representative said Monday, “As far as I know, nothing has been discussed.”
Inter-Korean exchanges have largely been put on hold in the wake of the attack on the Cheonan, which was sunk in the waters off the west coast, killing 46 sailors in March. Seoul is demanding the North’s official apology for torpedoing the ship, which North Korea denies and claims its innocence. The current administration has stopped rice aid since taking office in 2008. The last rice delivery in bulk was in 2007, which has only been followed by occasional deliveries of corn.
Supporters of the assistance argue that sending rice helps South Korea maintain the amount of rice in stock.
According to the Ministry of Food, Agriculture, Forestry, Fisheries, as of June this year, roughly 1.6 million tons of rice is in stock, twice what is normally stored. And it expends exceedingly high maintenance fees, which some statistics estimate totaled roughly 400 billion won last year.