SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea prepared Monday to send 5,000 tons of rice to flood victims in North Korea in its first humanitarian rice shipment to its communist neighbor since a conservative, pro-U.S. government took office in 2008.
For a decade, South Korea was a major donor of food to North Korea before President Lee Myung-bak halted unconditional assistance following his inauguration in early 2008 with a tough line on Pyongyang. Lee's government also drastically slashed trade with North Korea after tension spiked over March's deadly sinking of a South Korean warship blamed on Pyongyang.
The two Koreas remain technically at war, since their 1950-53 conflict ended with a cease-fire, not a peace treaty.
Recently, however, signs of a thaw have been emerging on the divided Korean peninsula, with Pyongyang making a series of conciliatory gestures, such as releasing South Korean and American detainees and proposing the resumption of stalled joint projects. South Korea, meanwhile, promised last month to send 10 billion won ($8.5 million) in flood aid to the North.
A freighter carrying 5,000 tons of rice was to leave the southern Gunsan port Monday for the Chinese city of Dandong near the border with North Korea. Chinese trucks are to deliver the rice to flood victims in the northwestern North Korean city of Sinuiju by mid-November, according to Seoul's Red Cross, which handles the government-financed shipment.
"We're unconditionally sending this with our brotherly love," Red Cross chief Yoo Chong-ha said at the port.
The ship's departure was delayed due to strong winds, but it might leave overnight if the weather improves, another Red Cross official, Jung Jun-young, said.
Heavy flooding swamped farmland, houses and public buildings in Sinuiju in August. An estimated 80,000-90,000 people were affected by the flooding, and the 5,000 tons of rice can feed about 100,000 people for 100 days, according to the Red Cross.
"It's a response to the North's conciliatory measures," said Kim Yong-hyun, a North Korea expert at Seoul's Dongguk University. "I can say it's a small but considerably meaningful start of assistance to North Korea."
Lee's two liberal predecessors seeking reconciliation with North Korea had sent about 300,000-400,000 tons of rice to North Korea annually. Lee, however, suspended such unconditional aid linking it to progress in the North's denuclearization process.
South Korea's last rice shipment to North Korea was made in December 2007. Rice is a key staple for both Koreas.
Later Monday, two ships carrying 3 million instant cup noodles bound Sinuiju left for Dandong from Incheon port, west of Seoul, Jung said. Cement and medicines will also be delivered to North Korea by December, he said.
The North's latest conciliatory gestures showed how it badly needs aid to recover from the flooding damage and the regime wants to provide a livelihood for its people as it tries to maintain stability while leader Kim Jong Il moves to transfer his power to a son, expert Kim said.
The North's economy is in shambles due to the communist state's mismanagement and tight controls on business, and the country has relied on outside food aid to feed much of its 24 million people. The North's chronic food shortage was feared to worsen following the latest flooding.
AP Television News cameraman Yong-ho Kim contributed to this report from Gunsan, South Korea.