A ship carrying South Korean rice aid was set to leave for North Korea yesterday, amid heightened optimism that Pyongyang would fulfill a pledge to shut down its nuclear reactor.
The Vietnam-registered ship was to arrive today at the North's eastern Nampo port with 3,000 tonnes of rice -- the first batch of 400,000 tonnes promised by South Korea in April.
The delivery was initially set to begin in late May, but it was put on hold as Seoul used the food aid as leverage to pressure Pyongyang to act on a February pledge to shut down its main reactor.
South Korea decided to start the delivery after the North renewed its commitment to keep that pledge, following the resolution of a banking dispute with the United States that stalled the disarmament process.
The entire shipment -- worth some 165 billion won (US$179 million) -- was expected to take up to five months to be completed, South Korea's Unification Ministry said.
North Korea and international nuclear monitors recently agreed on how to monitor and verify the shuttering of the nuclear reactor.
The agreement -- announced on Friday in Pyongyang -- came during a visit to the North by an International Atomic Energy Agency delegation. It was the UN nuclear watchdog's first trip to the Yongbyon reactor since inspectors were expelled from the country in late 2002.
North Korea's 5megawatt reactor is believed to have the capacity to produce enough plutonium to make one nuclear bomb a year.
North Korea, which carried out its first nuclear test last October, was to receive economic aid and political concessions in return for giving up the reactor.
The impoverished North has relied on outside handouts to feed its 23 million people since its economy was devastated by natural disasters and mismanagement in the mid-1990s. Famine is believed to have killed 2 million people.
In recent years, South Korea has sent some 400,000 to 500,000 tonnes of rice to the North annually.