We made the decision judging that the condition for denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula is taking shape under a Feb. 13 agreement," said Lee Jae-joung, South Korea's point man on North Korea, referring to a flurry of moves surrounding the North's denuclearization process.
International inspectors from the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog are to arrive in Pyongyang later in the day to discuss ways of monitoring and verifying the North's shutdown of its main nuclear reactor at Yongbyon, north of the capital.
South Korea resumed shipments of fertilizer and other emergency aid to the North in late March, but withheld the loan of 400,000 tons of rice as an inducement for North Korea to start nuclear dismantlement under the landmark agreement.
"Based on reports from the World Food Program on North Korea's food situation and opinions from U.N. officials and Seoul-based ambassadors to the North, we think it is right to ship rice aid as soon as possible," Lee told reporters.
The shipment, which will consist of 250,000 tons of imported rice and 150,000 tons of domestic rice, will be made over the next six months, with South Korean inspectors monitoring the distribution at a total of 20 places in North Korea each time 100,000 tons of rice aid is shipped, Lee explained.
The ministry said North Korea is supposed to pay back $152 million worth of loans over 20 years after a 10-year grace period at an interest rate of 2 percent.
South Korea perceives the outcome of U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill's recent North Korea trip to be a step toward the North's denuclearization. The North is willing to promptly shut down its main nuclear reactor and return to multilateral talks over its nuclear program in early July, Hill said.
In early June, inter-Korean ministerial talks ended without tangible results as North Korea protested the South's decision to withhold rice aid until the North took steps toward nuclear dismantlement.
South Korea suspended all types of food and fertilizer aid to North Korea after the North conducted missile tests in July.
Resumption of the aid was stymied due to the North's nuclear bomb test in October, but the two sides agreed to put all inter-Korean projects back on track in early March. The last rice aid shipment was made in early 2006.
A weak harvest in 2006, disastrous summer flooding and a 75 percent fall in donor assistance have dealt severe blows to the impoverished nation, according to World Food Program (WFP) officials.
According to a recent think tank report, North Korea could run short of up to one third of the food it needs this year if South Korea and other countries withhold aid.
Data from the WFP and the Unification Ministry show that the North will need between 5.24 million tons and 6.47 million tons of food this year. Depending on the weather, the availability of fertilizer and other factors, the communist state may only be able to produce 4.3 million tons of food by itself, the report said.
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