The announcement, which came days after the United Nations adopted a tougher set of sanctions against the North, was met with immediate backlash from both within and outside the county.
“The current administration’s basic stance is that humanitarian assistance should be continued regardless of political considerations,” Seoul’s Unification Ministry said Thursday in a press briefing, stressing that the aid program will specifically target infants and pregnant women.
A final decision on whether or not to proceed with the support plan is expected on Sept. 21, at a meeting presided over by the unification minister.
According to the ministry, out of the planned $8 million, about $4.5 million is envisioned to go to the United Nations Food Program while the rest would be managed by UNICEF for its vaccine and other health care programs. The ministry said that the UN organizations have been consistently asking for government permission to restart their relief programs.
The project, if realized, will mark the Moon Jae-in administration’s first state-backed humanitarian assistance to the North.
South Korea, under the previous Park Geun-hye administration, cut off all aid to the reclusive regime after it conducted its fourth nuclear weapons test in January last year. Its last provision of aid through global organizations was the United Nations Population Fund’s research project in December 2015, in which Seoul chipped in $800,000.
The Foreign Ministry said Thursday that the government had explained its plan to the United States and Japan.
However, speaking at a general briefing, Japan’s Suga said, “A resolution that carries strict sanctions against the communist regime has been adopted unanimously at the UN Security Council meeting. It is important to keep away from actions that can weaken the international efforts,” he was quoted as saying by Yonhap News Agency.
When asked if Japan is willing to discuss Seoul’s plan, he said he would not answer now as the plan is yet to be officially confirmed.
South Korea’s opposition parties strongly criticized the government, calling for an abortion of the plan.
“It is already proven that lenient North Korean policies have been the source of the rogue state’s nuclear missile development,” the party’s spokeswoman Rep. Jun Hee-kyung said.
“The $8 million plan should immediately be withdrawn, as it is the most inhumane and harsh treatment to prolong the Kim Jong-un administration for North Koreans.”
The centrist People’s Party Chairman Ahn Cheol-soo said that while he agrees with the need for humanitarian aid, he questioned the timing.
“We have to think carefully in proceeding with the aid project because the plan comes right after the North’s recent nuclear test and we are the biggest victim here,” he told reporters during his visit to North Jeolla Province on Thursday.
A member of the parliamentary committee for foreign affairs and unification also said that the government’s stance could negatively influence the relationship with allies.
“Even if it is funding mothers and children in North Korea through international organizations, we should reconsider the choice. The international society gave consent to pressure the North, and South Korea should not be the one to nullify it,” Rep. Cheong Yang-seog of the minor opposition conservative Bareun Party said.
Stung by the criticism, the presidential office Cheong Wa Dae reiterated the principle that humanitarian support should not be linked to political conditions.
“Sanctions target the North Korean regime and the group that keeps the leadership intact, not its citizens,” a Cheong Wa Dae official said Thursday. “Providing assistance through international organizations is something other nations have been doing as well. We have decided to make this decision because (such a method) is verifiable and transparent,” the official added.
Cheong Wa Dae also implied that its decision would not be affected by possible North Korean provocations in the future, in line with its two-track policy of dialogue and sanctions against the North.
By Jo He-rim, Jung Min-kyung (email@example.com) (firstname.lastname@example.org)