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South Korea approves $8 million aid for the North even as Kim and Trump trade threats

  • South Korea approved an $8 million aid package to Pyongyang on Thursday
  • Coming amid international efforts to pressure the North, the move could be challenging for Washington and Tokyo, who advocate a tougher stance on Kim Jong Un's provocations

South Korea on Thursday approved $8 million worth of humanitarian aid for Pyongyang in a move likely to muddle international efforts aimed at isolating the nuclear-armed state.

The package will include $4.5 million in nutritional products for children and pregnant women through the World Food Program in addition to $3.5 million worth of vaccines and medicinal treatments via UNICEF. The timing of the delivery has yet to be confirmed.

The news indicates South Korean President Moon Jae-In isn't backing down from direct engagement with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un even as other major players in the long-simmering crisis push for a tougher approach.

President Donald Trump announced fresh sanctions against the rogue state on Thursday amid a swap of insults between the two leaders — Kim referred to the Republican's U.N. speech as "the most ferocious declaration of a war in history."

Even China, which has long been reluctant to pressure the North, upped its stance on Thursday by ordering domestic banks to halt business dealings with the pariah nation, according to a Reuters report.

Forging ahead with a softer stance on Kim despite the North's recent nuclear and ballistic missile tests "has put South Korea at odds with its U.S. and Japanese counterparts," political consultancy Stratfor said in a recent note.

Earlier this month, Trump claimed on Twitter that Moon was "appeasing" Pyongyang, while Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe urged Moon to reconsider his strategy during a telephone call last week. Japanese chief cabinet secretary Yoshihide Suga has also warned against any actions that would undermine pressure on the North.

Moon's conciliatory stance will certainly complicate efforts by the U.S. and Japan to isolate Kim, warned Stephen Nagy, associate professor at Tokyo- based International Christian University.

To South Korea's defense, its latest aid disbursement was relatively small compared with earlier packages.

Seoul has provided an average of $11.79 million in assistance per year to North Korea for the past two decades with the exceptions of 1999, 2000 and 2016, Stratfor pointed out, adding that "Seoul has also said it will link timing of the aid with North Korean behavior — a difference from its earlier no-strings-attached stance."

The last time South Korea sent relief to its northern neighbor was December 2015.

Still, it remains to be seen whether resources will reach needy North Korean citizens instead of being diverted to the nation's elite or military — a key issue for international agencies.

Aid as a defense tactic

The offer of humanitarian assistance could ultimately be necessary for South Korea's long-term survival.

Seoul will bear the brunt of any North Korea retaliation so it can't apply too much pressure on Kim, Nagy said on Friday.

"The idea is to educate North Koreans that they are getting aid from outside and show them that there's a care aspect to engagement," he said.

While South Korea, the U.S. and Japan remain united on the main issues concerning the North, Seoul maintains a different perspective due to its potential front-line status in any conflict, echoed Troy Stangarone, senior director at the Korea Economic Institute.

"Part of finding a diplomatic solution to the problem involves retaining options that allow North Korea to see a better future and not closing all possible doors, even if the current environment is not conducive to humanitarian efforts," he said.