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North Korea: Witness to Transformation

South Korean Aid: Trying Again

by | July 17th, 2014 | 07:05 am

This blog has followed the twists and turns of Park Geun Hye’s Trustpolitik, most recently in the reformulation in her Dresden speech. An ongoing issue is how aid will be used to smooth any North-South political process. Most of the Dresden promises were prospective, offering large-scale aid commitments were North Korea to change course. However, the Park administration has also periodically offered modest assistance as a signal, for example using the floods of last summer to provide both multilateral and bilateral assistance.

This week, the Ministry of Unification announced a small aid package despite nearly-simultaneous North Korean missile and artillery tests. The government will use the North-South Cooperation Fund to finance roughly $3 million in NGO projects, including support for building plastic greenhouses, pediatric clinics, and dairy projects. The use of this mechanism, which has been dormant, raised speculation that the government may consider relaxing the May 24th sanctions imposed in the wake of the sinking of the Cheonan in 2010.

Relaxation of sanctions on trade and investment outside of Kaesong would mark a major political move, and will no doubt be considered by the presidential panel on reunification launched with some fanfare this week. The panel will be chaired by President Park herself, but with two co-chairs doing the heavy lifting: former ambassador to China Chung Chong-wook and Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae. The panel includes public sector, private sector, political and academic participants from across the political spectrum; we noticed, for example, that Woo Yoon-keun of the opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy and Yonsei Professor Moon Chung-in—an advisor to presidents Kim Dae Jung and particularly Roh Moo Hyun—were both tapped.

Although including officials from the Ministry of Unification, the panel effectively highlights the ongoing difficulty the administration has had in forging a coherent North Korea policy. Can or should Seoul make concessions in the face of North Korea’s continual reiteration of its intention to maintain its nuclear capability and a marked uptick in conventional missile and artillery tests? How might any Southern initiative fit with the incessant Chinese mantra of returning to the Six Party Talks?

A footnote: this month has also seen an ongoing controversy about MoU allocation of small grants to groups involved in North Korea-related activities in the South. Critics allege that very little funding is going to human rights groups in the South, either in an effort to forge consensus with the political opposition or to accommodate the North. Given the stalemate, it is unclear what the MoU should even be doing; funded activities have included things like concerts and information campaigns.