SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korea on Thursday decided to resume humanitarian aid to North Korea to help children and pregnant women, but didn't determine when to provide the $8 million worth of assistance amid tensions created by Pyongyang's nuclear and missile tests.
Still, the decision is ensured to trigger heated political debates as many South Koreans have expressed concerns that the aid resumption would distract from efforts to step up sanctions and pressure against the North over its rapidly expanding nuclear weapons program.
South Korea suspended humanitarian aid to North Korea after the country conducted its fourth nuclear test in January 2016. The country's new liberal President Moon Jae-in, who took office in May, has maintained that the issue of providing humanitarian aid to North Korea should be handled independently from political circumstances.
After a meeting between ministries and civilian experts, the government decided to support programs by the United Nations Children's Fund and the U.N. World Food Program for providing food and medicines to North Korean children and pregnant women, the Unification Ministry said.
The ministry said the assistance doesn't include cash and there's "realistically no possibility" that the North could use it to support its military. The government will decide when to provide the aid considering the state of relations between the rival Koreas, the ministry said. The U.N. assesses that 18 million of the 25 million North Koreans are experiencing varying levels of food shortages and the country also suffers from high child and maternal mortality rates.
Son Kum-ju, a lawmaker and spokesman of the opposition People's Party, said the decision to resume aid was badly timed because it risks sending mixed signals to the international community that's trying to tighten the screws on Pyongyang.
"The international community is strengthening sanctions and pressure against North Korea and even Moon is in the United States to strengthen international coordination against the North Korean problem," said Son. "If our government contradicts itself and beats to a different beat, it won't be able to gain the approval of its own people, let alone other countries."
The last time South Korea provided humanitarian aid to North Korea through an international agency was in December 2015, when it gave $800,000 to the U.N. Population Fund project to evaluate North Korean public health conditions.
Since its fourth nuclear test a month later, North Korea has conducted two more nuclear tests and flight-tested a slew of new missile systems, including developmental ICBMs that could potentially reach deep into the U.S. mainland when perfected. The North also flew two powerful new midrange missiles over Japan in recent weeks.