Page last updated at 12:40 GMT, Friday, 15 January 2010

North Korea accepts food aid from South Korea

South Korean workers sort sacks of fertiliser aid for the North - 7 July 2006
North Korea has been reliant on foreign aid for years

North Korea has accepted an offer of food aid from South Korea, officials in Seoul have announced.

The offer of 10,000 tonnes of food was made in October, but no response has been given until now.

It will be the first official aid since relations soured two years ago. The UN said last year the North was very short of food following a disastrous harvest.

Meanwhile, a UN official said the North was handing out tougher punishments to citizens who tried to flee the country.

Analysts believe that harsher international sanctions imposed following the North's missile and nuclear tests last year have been hurting the country.

Aid reliant

The amount of food on offer is relatively insignificant, says the BBC's John Sudworth in Seoul, but its acceptance may be another sign that Pyongyang is looking to improve relations with the South.

President Lee stopped unconditional aid to the North after he took office in February 2008, linking aid to progress in nuclear disarmament.

Before then, Seoul had annually sent hundreds of thousands of tonnes of food aid to the North.

The country has been reliant on foreign aid to feed its people since a devastating famine killed hundreds of thousands of people in the 1990s.

The UN World Food Programme said last September that one-third of North Korean women and young children were malnourished and predicted a shortfall of almost 1.8 million tonnes of food in 2009.

Talks offer

Pyongyang pulled out of talks on ending its nuclear programme last April following widespread condemnation of a long-range missile launch.

International pressure grew following an underground nuclear test in May - which drew UN sanctions and further missile tests.

But in December, North Korea said it would work with the US to "narrow remaining differences," and earlier this week said it could return to talks on its nuclear disarmament in exchange for a peace treaty with the US and an end to sanctions.

The 1950-53 Korean War ended in a ceasefire, but not a peace treaty.

As the offer of aid was accepted, a special envoy appointed by the UN to examine North Korea's human rights record said a tougher approach by Pyongyang to people caught fleeing the North meant fewer refugees were making the attempt.

Vitit Muntarbhorn, a Thai law professor, described grave human rights violations, including a denial of basic rights such as access to food.

He spoke in Seoul following interviews with defectors and aid organisations which work in North Korea.

Mr Muntarbhorn, who is preparing to hand over to a successor, has never been allowed by North Korea to visit since taking up the post in 2004.

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