Jung Yeon-Je/AFP/Getty Images
Yoo Chong-Ha, head of South Korea's Red Cross, announced the aid shipment during a news conference Monday at the agency's headquarters in Seoul.
Jung Yeon-Je/AFP/Getty Images
South Korea's Red Cross announced plans Monday to send 5,000 tons of rice and other humanitarian aid to flood-stricken North Korea — enough to feed about 200,000 victims.
That would mark South Korea's first major aid shipment to North Korea since the deadly sinking of a South Korean warship in March that killed 46 sailors. Earlier Monday, the Defense Ministry's final investigation concluded a North Korean submarine fired a torpedo that sank the ship, as suspected. North Korea denies the charge.
The sinking raised tensions, but there have been signs of a thaw in recent weeks. A senior U.S. envoy even expressed optimism Monday that the impasse in negotiations with North Korea over its nuclear weapons program could be resolved soon.
North Korea pulled out of the disarmament talks last year to protest international criticism of its long-range rocket launch. Prospects for restarting the talks were further undermined following the warship sinking.
"I'm optimistic that at some point in the not-too-distant future we can be back engaged," American envoy Stephen Bosworth said during a meeting with South Korea's Vice Foreign Minister Shin Kak-soo.
Bosworth was in South Korea as part of an Asian tour concerning the deadlocked negotiations, which hope to persuade the North to give up its atomic weapons ambitions in exchange for aid.
The impoverished North has relied on outside food aid to feed much of its 24 million people since the mid-1990s, and experts fear the latest flooding exacerbated the North's chronic food shortage.
The worsening economic situation in the North appears to be behind the recent thaw.
"North Korea is trying to resolve the difficult situation — the flooding damage and worsening economic woes — by improving ties with South Korea," said Kim Yong-hyun, a North Korea expert at Seoul's Dongguk University.
Better relations with South Korea are also seen as the first step toward the resumption of the nuclear talks, Kim said.
South Korea's government is planning to send rice and cement worth an estimated $8.5 million to help North Koreans living in Sinuiju, a town near the Chinese border that was hard hit by heavy downpours last month, the South's Red Cross chief Yoo Chong-ha told reporters.
Yoo said North Korea also had asked for heavy equipment but that the request was ruled out because of its size and concerns by South Korea's military.
An estimated 80,000 to 90,000 people were affected by the flooding, and the 5,000 tons of rice can feed about 100,000 people for 100 days, Yoo said. The aid was expected to be delivered within a month, he said.
Yoo also offered to hold talks with officials from the North on Friday at the North Korean border village of Kaesong on the possibility of a fresh round of reunions between families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War. The North had proposed the talks over the weekend.
More than 20,800 separated families have been briefly reunited through face-to-face meetings or by video following a landmark inter-Korean summit in 2000. However, the program stalled a year ago as ties between the countries deteriorated.
The reunion program is highly emotional for Koreans, as most applying are elderly and eager to see loved ones before they die.
In other conciliatory gestures toward Seoul and Washington, the North recently freed the seven-member crew of a South Korean fishing boat and an imprisoned American during a visit by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter.
Despite these improvements, it remains unclear whether the six-party nuclear talks will restart anytime soon because American, South Korean and Japanese officials have called on Pyongyang to come clean on the warship sinking and express a sincere willingness to disarm before the negotiations can resume.
"I would emphasize that the U.S. is not interested in talking just for the sake of talking with the North Koreans," Bosworth said. "So we will be looking for indications that North Korea shares that desire and that determination."
His trip also came amid uncertainty over whether North Korea has begun a rare Workers' Party meeting believed aimed at giving a top party job to a son of leader Kim Jong Il.
South Korean intelligence chief Won Sei-hoon told a parliamentary committee Monday that he expected the meeting to take place later this week, according to the office of lawmaker Park Young-sun, who attended the closed-door briefing.
NPR's Doualy Xaykaothao contributed to this report from Seoul, South Korea.