After suspending its aid to North Korea for nearly a year, South Korea has offered to send emergency relief aid to the North to help alleviate widespread chronic poverty, food shortages and severe damage caused by a recent flood and a typhoon, said the Unification Ministry – the South Korean government branch charged with cross-border affairs -- on Friday.
After a trip to the North by non-governmental organization workers to assess the situation, the South's Red Cross chief sent a proposal to the North on Monday, calling for talks on aid shipment. As of now, the North has not yet responded.
Official aid from the South to the North often goes through the Red Cross as a matter of formality and convenience.
South Korea last sent such aid two years ago, although other civilian groups have been allowed to ship materials to the North under approvals made by the Unification Ministry, which monitors all cross-border shipment and travels.
Having been plagued by repeated provocations and military threats from its immediate neighbor, South Korea has been reluctant and cautious in continuing such assistance, especially after the 2010 bombing of Yeonpyeong Island, which killed four South Koreans and injured 19. South Korea is still waiting for an official apology for the incident from Pyongyang.
Cross-border relations had sunk to almost zero after the death of Kim Jung-Il last year. North Korea’s (failed) test of a ballistic missile earlier this spring (in defiance of UN resolutions) further darkened relations.
In the past, South Korea has also expressed its concerns over the potential misuse of aid resources, such as the practice of stockpiling or use in military functions, by the North. Last year, Seoul offered to send emergency supplies, but Pyongyang spurned the package and demanded rice and cement instead, which South Korea refused to provide for fear of misuse, thus bringing an unpleasant end to a supposedly friendly gesture.
Unification Minister Yu Woo-ik made a statement in a parliamentary meeting two weeks earlier that Seoul could provide aid to the North "if the situation requires."
"We have been watching the state of North Korea's flood damage with a view that we can suggest aid provision even without requests from the North in case the situation gets serious," he said.
The ambivalence is clear, as it can be seen in The Korea Herald, which published two stories on North Korea in one day: one on the South sending aid to the North, the other on the potential threat of the North using biological weapons.
It is a quandary that defies easy solutions – North Korea is desperately poor and hungry, but its government is implacably hostile to much of the rest of the world.
Despite the imposition of severe sanctions against North Korea, humanitarian concerns prevent foreign governments and non-government institutions from completely cutting off all aid.
Indeed, a UN report in 2011 revealed that food rations were cut to as low as 150 grams (5.3 ounces) a day per person in some parts of North Korea, resulting in many malnourished children.
About 37 percent of its population (7.2 million people) suffers from chronic food shortages, according to an UN report released in May.
North Korea has suffered through a series of natural disasters, from the drought this spring, to the flood this summer and the recent typhoon.
Pyongyang's state news agency said earlier that floods in June and July left 569 people dead or missing and washed away or inundated 65,280 hectares (161,310 acres) of cropland.
The Bolaven typhoon in August also killed 48 people, damaged at least 50,000 hectares of farmland and left more than 21,000 people homeless.
People in many areas lack not only food, but also clean water, as the wells have been contaminated by sewage during the flood.
In August, United Nations said that North Korea had requested immediate food aid after the disasters. UN officials in Pyongyang confirmed the severity of the situation after visiting flood-stricken parts of the country to assess damage.
Determined not to repeat the same disaster of the 1990s -- when a famine killed hundreds of thousands in North Korea -- foreign countries such as South Korea, China, the US and Japan have continued to send in support on agriculture, health and nutrition.
These four countries have dominated the provision of food aid to North Korea, contributing over 75 percent of the total since 1995.
Yet, according to a congressional research report, North Korea "has been adept at turning from one donor to another, opportunistically seeking out the least stringent terms."
For example, when Beijing and Seoul increased their food contribution in the mid-2000s, North Korea ceased cooperating with intrusive UN monitoring conditions. It was only in 2008, when inter-Korean relations began to sour and humanitarian assistance from South Korea dried up, that North Korea turned back to the US and accepted Washington's demands for expanded access to nuclear facilities and improved monitoring of such sites.
Meanwhile, South Korea, Japan and the United States continue to struggle with their aid provision policies with respect to North Korea, trying to maintain a difficult balance between military fears and humanitarian issues.