South Korea agreed yesterday to provide 400,000 tonnes of rice to North Korea starting late next month on condition the North moves towards shutting down its nuclear programs, officials said.
"Out of humanitarian considerations and brotherly love as the same nation, the South will provide 400,000 tonnes of rice [in the form of a loan] to the North," a joint statement issued at the end of bilateral economic cooperation talks in Pyongyang said.
The 10-point official statement did not mention the South's demand that the North starts to freeze its nuclear weapons programs under a February deal.
But South Korean delegates made it clear to the North Korean side throughout the talks that the rice aid would be conditional on the North taking steps towards denuclearization, media pool reports said.
"We made clear that it would be difficult for us to proceed with the rice aid as scheduled unless North Korea acts to fulfil the February 13 agreement," Chin Dong-Soo, chief South Korean delegate, told journalists in Pyongyang.
"We told them clearly that it would be difficult for either [South Korea's] parliament to approve [the rice aid] or the international community to understand it if the February agreement is not being implemented," he said.
He said the North's compliance with the nuclear deal was "the key" for receiving the rice aid.
The two sides were originally scheduled to wrap up the four days of talks in Pyongyang with a joint statement on Saturday, but the talks were extended until yesterday as the two sides haggled over food aid and nuclear disarmament.
Seoul suspended its massive shipment of rice after the North's missile tests last July. Ties soured further after Pyongyang's October nuclear test, but improved when the North returned to six-nation nuclear disarmament talks.
The North missed an April 14 deadline under a February six-nation nuclear disarmament deal to move to shut down and seal its Yongbyon reactor, which produces the raw material for plutonium to make bombs.
The South pushed to insert a phrase in the joint statement that says the two sides should make joint efforts to implement the February agreement, the pool reports said.
However, the North is strongly opposed to linking aid to disarmament and rejected it.
North Korea said on Friday it was still working to solve a banking dispute which is blocking progress on its nuclear disarmament.
Analysts said the delay indicated the complexity of the dispute over the US$25 million in Banco Delta Asia (BDA) even after the North's accounts in the Macau bank were officially unfrozen.
The US welcomed a renewed North Korean pledge on Friday to start shutting down its nuclear program once the banking dispute is settled, but urged Pyongyang to act quickly.
"Glad to hear that they are on record again as saying not only do they support and intend to fulfil their obligations under the Feb. 13 agreement, but that they intend to do so quickly," State Department spokesman Tom Casey said.
The US Treasury blacklisted BDA in September 2005, alleging that some of the North Korean accounts there contained the proceeds of money laundering and counterfeiting.
In an effort to make progress on the nuclear issue, Washington announced last week the money was available for collection or transfer. But foreign banks are reluctant to accept the transferred cash.
The two sides also agreed yesterday to conduct test runs of cross-border railways on May 17 and make efforts to ensure a military guarantee for their safe operation.
Previous attempts to carry out the test runs failed to come about as the North Korean military was reluctant to open the sensitive border areas to commercial traffic.
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