10/25/2006, 00.00
SOUTH KOREA – NORTH KOREA
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Seoul rethinking unification strategy as Pyongyang continues to steal humanitarian aid

by Joseph Yun Li-sun
South Korean Unification Minister quits. Seoul's unconditional dialogue with Pyongyang comes under attack as humanitarian aid is diverted to North Korea's army and military plans.

Seoul (AsiaNews) – South Korean Unification Minister Lee Jong-seok handed in his resignation today to President Roh Moo-hyun after "North Korea's recent nuclear test, [which shows that ] all my efforts and achievements in securing the peninsula and bringing North and South closer have been thrown on the chopping block".

Mr Lee's resignation comes at a time when more and more South Koreans are questioning the "unconditional dialogue" with the North. But despite quitting he has not renegaded on this policy. "I think," he said, "there were no great mistakes made in the process of carrying through our North Korean policy, and I am confident in the successes brought about by our policy of engaging the North." However, "I feel there is a need for someone with more ability than me to come and conquer the problems we face. I understand that President Roh will be accommodating my request".

For South Korean news media, Lee's resignation confirms instead the growing doubts in the population and opposition parties over the usefulness of a policy of dialogue with Kim Jong-il's Stalinist regime.

A key role in the situation is played by international humanitarian aid, especially from China and South Korea. In fact, in Seoul demonstrations took place against the government's decision to reduce rather than interrupt shipping aid to the North at a time when Kim Jong-il's regime is accused of using aid money to the population to prop its military apparatus.

Accusations are increasingly backed by eye witnesses and documentary evidence. In early September a three-hour video was made public by a northern refugee who was able to cross the border into South Korea; it shows North Korean soldiers taking food earmarked for civilians.

The refugee, Ho Hye-il, a security guard in the North, told South Korean news media that the images "tell the truth. Only 30 per cent of the food sent from South Korea goes to the population. The rest is taken by force by the army".

In a long article published in a South Korean opposition paper, the inter-Korean industrial zone in Kaesong, North Korea, also comes in for an attack. Seen as the masterpiece of former President Kim Dae-jung's 'sunshine' policy towards the North based on an unconditional collaboration with Pyongyang, the industrial zone has given South Korean companies the opportunity to operate in North Korea employing North Korean workers.

However, North Koreans authorities have been cheating the latter out of their wages with the "guilty silence" of Seoul. An employee making US$ 57.5 per month gets US$ 1.80. This is happening not only because the government deducts US$ 22.50 for programmes, including social welfare programs and labour insurance, but also because it pays workers in its own currency at an official rate of 143 won per 1 US dollar. On the black market, the dollar is reportedly exchanged for some 3,000 North Korean won.

The humanitarian aid from the South, that is being stolen from a starving population, is being sold for at higher prices, this according to a North Korean aid organisation located in Dandong City, Liaoning (China).

After the Yongchon disaster of April 2004, 70 to 80 per cent of relief aid including blankets and medical tools did not reach local residents, but was instead confiscated by the authorities and resold to their own citizens.

What is more Pyongyang is accused of inflating the disaster in order to get non humanitarian aid. Once in the country, the goods are sold at higher prices as "foreign imports".

According to aid personnel, such practices are not unusual but happen all the time.           

 

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