South Korea on Friday approved the first shipment of humanitarian aid to North Korea since military tensions spiralled after Pyongyang’s rocket launch in December and nuclear test last month.
Eugene Bell, a South Korean charity, was given the green light to ship tuberculosis medicine worth US$605,000 for its medical service programme in the North, the unification ministry said.
But ministry spokesman Kim Hyung-Suk stressed the decision should not be seen as a conciliatory gesture at a time of highly-elevated military tensions on the Korean peninsula.
“The approval is strictly for humanitarian purposes and should not be read as a message to condone North Korea’s recent provocations,” he said.
In recent weeks, North Korea has made multiple threats of an armed response to joint South Korea-US military drills and to United Nations sanctions imposed after its February nuclear test.
South Korea halted government food and fertiliser shipments to the North after former president Lee Myung-Bak’s conservative administration took office in early 2008.
Humanitarian aid by civic groups was allowed to continue, with the most recent shipment taking place in November last year.
South Korea’s new President Park Geun-Hye had campaigned on a promise of greater engagement with Pyongyang and held out the possibility of resuming official aid.
But the rocket launch and nuclear test, and the UN sanctions that followed both events, have put any rapprochement plans on the back burner.
The North suffers chronic food shortages, with the situation exacerbated by floods, droughts and mismanagement. Hundreds of thousands died during a famine in the mid- to late-1990s.