North Korea stunned South Korea yesterday by rejecting a Seoul offer to send emergency aid for train blast victims directly through the tense inter-Korean border.
In what appeared to be a setback for inter-Korean relations, North Korea turned down the offer that would have brought early relief to victims of last week's explosion in which at least 161 people died and 1,300 were injured.
"North Korea rejected our proposed overland transportation of emergency relief goods," said Moon Won-il, spokesman for South Korea's National Red Cross.
"The North's rejection was made during a border contact between liaison officials of Red Cross authorities from both sides. North Korea did not elaborate on the reason."
The border between the two Koreas is the world's most heavily fortified frontier, dividing some 600,000 South Korean troops from North Korea's 1.1 million-strong army.
North Korea's decision surprised South Koreans who have been mobilized by feelings of brotherly compassion to stage a major relief effort for disaster victims in the Stalinist state.
"We do not know the exact reason, but we just presume that North Korea might be concerned about security issues involved in allowing cross-border transportation," a Unification Ministry official who declined to be named said.
Red Cross officials said delivering aid by road to the blast site at Ryongchong would take about four hours. The alternative, sea transportation, would take some 48 hours.
The Red Cross spokesman said the refusal by North Korea may not be the final word.
North Korea has asked for a meeting of Red Cross officials from the two sides to discuss "technical details" of the proposed transportation at the town of Kaesong, just over the border inside North Korea, today.
South Korea has pledged US$1 million worth of disaster aid for Ryongchong and acting president Goh Kun earlier yesterday called for swift deployment of the aid.
Relations between the two Koreas have improved steadily in recent years following a summit between the leaders of North and South in 2000 that reversed decades of enmity and laid the foundations for reconciliation.
Tension still surfaces occasionally and North Korea's official media often accuses South Korea of supporting the US hard line on the North Korean nuclear standoff and chides Seoul for hosting 37,000 US troops, a legacy of the 1950-1953 Korean War.
Pyongyang has also criticized South Korea for agreeing to send troops to Iraq at the request of Washington.