- The Washington Times - Friday, March 14, 2003

SEOUL, South Korea, March 14 (UPI) — Despite the looming crisis over North Korea's nuclear ambitions, South Korea plans to offer some 1.3 million tons of rice aid to North Korea, a senior official said Friday.

South Korea will also propose the two Koreas hold high-level agricultural talks to discuss ways to ease the North's chronic food shortages and Seoul's farming technology aid, Agriculture and Forestry Minister Kim Young-jin said.

In a major policy report to President Roh Moo-hyun, Kim said his ministry plans to supply a total of 1.3 million tons of rice to North Korea for the next 3 years "on humanitarian grounds." As a first batch, the ministry will send 432,000 tons this year, he said.

The aid plan is also designed to alleviate South Korea's excess rice supply, Kim said. The country's rice stockpile has soared in recent years, due mainly to the westernization of South Koreans' diet and rising productivity.

Government officials express hopes the food aid package would help reduce military tensions on the Korean peninsula sparked by North Korea's suspected nuclear weapons programs, saying the rice aid was part of efforts to seek peaceful engagement with the communist neighbor.

Roh, who took office late last month, has vowed to push for unconditional reconciliation with North Korea. He also has promised a large-scale economic assistance package if North Korea gives up its nuclear ambitions.

International relief agents have warned North Koreans will face starvation this year as they will run out of food by June. The World Food Program's office in Pyongyang said Tuesday North Korea's food shortage for this year was estimated at about 1.1 million tons, calling for more international handouts.

The United States has also promised to resume food aid to North Korea. During his Seoul visit last month, Secretary of State Colin Powell said Washington will donate 100,000 tons of food aid, saying his country didn't want to use food aid as a "political weapon" to press North Korea to change its defiant behavior.

Seoul's rice aid plan came after Roh and U.S. President George W. Bush agreed to seek a peaceful resolution to the North Korean nuclear crisis.

In a 15-minute telephone conversation Thursday night, the two leaders "shared the view that the North's nuclear issue should be settled peacefully through diplomatic efforts," said Roh's spokeswoman Song Kyoung-hee.

Roh pledged to support Bush's line on Iraq, in an apparent bid to win Washington's support for his soft-line approach toward North Korea in return. Seoul announced Thursday it plans to send military engineers, along with economic and medial assistance, to help the United States if its ally goes to war with Iraq.

Seoul's Unification Ministry, which handles relations with North Korea, ruled out immediate rice shipments to North Korea.

"We have yet to consult with the agricultural ministry over the rice aid package," a ministry official told United Press International on condition of anonymity.

South Korea had supplied 400,000 tons of rice until last January following the inter-Korean economic cooperation talks in August last year.

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