A major political storm brewed Tuesday between South Korea’s ruling and opposition parties over government plans to provide North Korea with food aid in the form of easy loans.
More than 10,000 people attended an opposition rally in Inchon near Seoul on Monday night to protest against President Kim Dae-jung’s policies, including those towards the rival North. The opposition plans another anti-government rally this week.
The South’s negotiators pledged to find a way to send more food to the North during ministerial-level talks last week.
The government had said it would decide on the scale and terms for the food shipment only after gauging public opinion but reports said Seoul is considering shipping 200,000 tons of food to hunger-stricken North Korea this year.
“In view of progress being made in inter-Korean relations, the provision of some 200,000 tons of food will create no major problems and the people will support the plan,” Lee Nak-yeon, a leading member of the ruling Millennium Democratic Party (MDP) inter Korean committee, told journalists.
MDP and government officials said “the food aid as loans” with concrete repayment conditions attached should be seen as “a step forward” in comparison to earlier free food shipments to the North.
They noted that when the opposition Grand National Party (GNP) was in power, under President Kim Young-Sam, South Korea had shipped 150,000 tons of free rice to the North.
But the GNP, which again forms the largest group in parliament, is strongly opposing the food loan.
“Should we send the North 200,000 tons of rice, we would have to import rice from abroad,” Mok Yo-sang, GNP’s chief policy-maker told a meeting of GNP leaders Monday.
“After all, there is no guarantee the North will ever repay the loan,” he added.
The GNP suggested the South give 50,000 tons of free rice on “humanitarian grounds” as long as it was ensured that the grain would not be diverted to the military.
Aid groups say the impact of North Korea’s five-year famine has eased this year thanks in part to international assistance.
Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) director-general Jacques Diouf said the needs of North Korea are evaluated at 4.7 million tons of cereal of which 3.4 million tons have been produced.
North Korea has been beset by natural disasters, including floods and drought, and economic debacles since the international communist bloc collapsed a decade ago.