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S Korea offers food aid to North

26 October 09 05:20 GMT

South Korea has offered about 10,000 tons of corn to North Korea, in what would be the first official aid to its hungry neighbour for almost two years.

The South also offered 20 tons of milk powder and medicine for children, pregnant women and other vulnerable people, its unification ministry said.

The proposed shipment would be through the Red Cross.

It would be the first official one since a conservative government came to power in Seoul in February 2008.

The South Korean administration of President Lee Myung-bak has linked major assistance to progress on denuclearisation.

However, after months of bitter hostility, the communist North began making peace overtures to the South in recent months.

Persistent media reports have also said the two sides have held preliminary talks about a possible summit.

Food and famine

The amount of food aid on offer is tiny relative to the needs in what the United Nations recently described as the famine-hit North.

A third of North Korean women and young children are malnourished and the country will run short of almost 1.8 million tons of food this year, the United Nations World Food Programme said in a report last month.

The unification ministry admitted it was far less than needed but said the North must mend relations before shipments could be increased.

"We cannot say 10,000 tons is sufficient in view of North Korea's food shortage and other conditions," said ministry spokeswoman Lee Jong-Joo.

"We are providing purely humanitarian aid," she said.

"There is no change in our position that massive food aid depends on how relations between the two Koreas develop," she said.

North Korea has yet to respond to the latest offer, made through the Red Cross. But Yonhap news agency said it was likely co-ordinated in advance before the announcement.

Last year the South offered 50,000 tons of corn, but the North rejected the shipment amid high tensions.

North Korea has relied on food aid from China, South Korea and aid agencies to feed millions of its people since a famine in the 1990s resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands.

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