POSTED: 10:44 p.m. HST, Sep 12, 2010
LAST UPDATED: 06:48 a.m. HST, Sep 13, 2010
SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea announced plans Monday to send 5,000 tons of rice and other aid to flood-stricken North Korea in a sign of easing tension between the divided countries.
The aid would mark South Korea's first major aid shipment to North Korea since March's deadly sinking of a South Korean warship, which killed 46 sailors and was blamed on Pyongyang. The incident spiked tensions, but the two Koreas have exchanged conciliatory gestures in recent weeks.
A senior U.S. envoy, meanwhile, expressed optimism Monday that the impasse in negotiations with North Korea over its nuclear weapons program could be resolved soon.
North Korea pulled out of the disarmament talks last year to protest international criticism of its long-range rocket launch. Prospects for restarting the talks were further undermined following the warship sinking.
"And I'm optimistic that at some point in the not-too-distant future we can be back engaged," American envoy Stephen Bosworth said during a meeting with South Korea's Vice Foreign Minister Shin Kak-soo.
Bosworth was in South Korea as part of an Asian tour aimed at discussing the deadlocked negotiations on ending North Korea's nuclear program in return for aid.
South Korea is planning to send 10 billion won ($8.5 million) in relief assistance to help the North recover from heavy flooding that swamped farmland, houses and public buildings in its northwest last month, the South's Red Cross chief Yoo Chong-ha told reporters. The aid would be financed by the South Korean government.
The impoverished North has relied on outside food aid to feed much of its 24 million people since the mid-1990s, and experts fear the latest flooding worsened the North's chronic food shortage.
An estimated 80,000-90,000 people were affected by the flooding and the 5,000 tons of rice can feed about 100,000 people for 100 days, Yoo said. The aid was expected to be delivered within a month, he said.
Yoo also offered to hold working-level talks with officials from the North on Friday at the North Korean border village of Kaesong to discuss a resumption in a program to hold reunions for families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War. The North had proposed such talks over the weekend.
More than 20,800 separated families have been briefly reunited through face-to-face meetings or by video following a landmark inter-Korean summit in 2000. However, the program stalled a year ago as ties between the countries deteriorated.
The reunion program is highly emotional for Koreans, as most applying are elderly and eager to see loved ones before they die. "As you know, the issue of separated families is an urgent matter because they are old," Yoo said.
In other conciliatory gestures toward Seoul and Washington, the North has already freed a seven-crew of a South Korean fishing boat and an imprisoned American during a visit by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter.
Earlier Monday, the Defense Ministry released a nearly 300-page document containing full details of a South Korea-led investigation into the March warship sinking, which concluded a North Korean submarine fired a torpedo that sank the ship off the west coast.
North Korea flatly denies attacking the vessel and has warned any punishment would trigger war.
Associated Press writer Sangwon Yoon contributed to this report.