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South Korea to propose flood aid to North Korea

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SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea will send a list of proposed relief aid to flood-stricken North Korea and hold talks on reuniting families separated by war six decades ago, the government said Sunday, in signs of easing tensions on the divided peninsula.

An overflowing river last month swamped farmland, houses and public buildings in the North’s northwestern city of Sinuiju and adjacent areas. State media reported the region was "severely affected" by the flooding, and experts fear the flooding worsened the country’s chronic food shortages.

The North has relied on foreign food aid since natural disasters and mismanagement devastated its economy in the mid-1990s and led to a famine estimated to have killed as many as 2 million people.

Thousands of people were affected by the flooding, with some still living in public shelters after their houses were destroyed, according to the Choson Sinbo, a Japan-based newspaper considered a mouthpiece for North Korea.

Local officials have received some aid from the government and international organizations but urgently need more food, fuel, tents and construction materials, the newspaper reported.

On Sunday, South Korea’s Unification Ministry said it plans to forward a list of aid it is willing to send to the North, including rice and cement. Heavy equipment that North Korea also requested will not be delivered over concerns it may be used for military purposes, spokeswoman Lee Jong-joo said.

The Unification Ministry, which oversees relations with the North, did not indicate when it would deliver the assistance. The Yonhap news agency, citing an unidentified South Korean official, said the South would soon begin sending the aid unless North Korea rejects the list.

Relations between the Koreas plummeted to their lowest level in years following the sinking in March of a South Korean warship that killed 46 sailors. South Korea blames the sinking on North Korea, which denies any involvement.

Ties have shown signs of improvement since late last month when South Korea offered 10 billion won ($8.5 million) in aid to help the North recover from the flooding. North Korea later freed seven crew members of a South Korean fishing boat seized Aug. 8 and offered to discuss a new round of reunions of families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War.

More than 20,800 families have been briefly reunited through face-to-face meetings or by video following a landmark inter-Korean summit in 2000. The program stalled a year ago as ties between the countries deteriorated.

Lee said South Korea will ask for regular reunions, rather than the one-time meetings offered by the North.

Millions of families remain separated following the Korean peninsula’s division in 1945 and the ensuing Korean War, which ended with a cease-fire, not a peace treaty. There are no mail, telephone or e-mail exchanges between ordinary citizens in the two Koreas.

Meanwhile, special U.S. envoy Stephen Bosworth was to arrive in Seoul later Sunday for talks on stalled six-nation negotiations over North Korea’s nuclear programs.

In an apparent conciliatory gesture toward Washington, the North freed an imprisoned American last month during a visit by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter.

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