PAJU, South Korea (Reuters) - A convoy of South Korean trucks carrying the first rice aid to North Korea in three years crossed the peninsula’s heavily armed border on Friday in the latest of a series of conciliatory moves between the rivals.
At the same time, officials from both countries met in the North Korean border town of Kaesong and agreed to resume next month reunions of families split by the Korean War. Reunions had been halted after the sinking of a South Korean warship in March.
Relations between the two Koreas have soured since conservative President Lee Myun-bak’s election in 2008, and then sank to their lowest point in decades at the start of the year with the sinking of a South Korean warship, killing 46 sailors.
Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, who visited Pyongyang last month, said the North was now sending a clear and strong signal to Washington and Seoul that it wanted to restart aid-for-disarmament talks.
Seoul, with Washington’s backing, accused Pyongyang of torpedoing its warship in March, and responded with toughened sanctions against its already weak economy and by staging a series of intimidating joint military drills off the peninsula.
Pyongyang denies it sank the South’s vessel, but there have been signs of a thaw since North Korean leader Kim Jong-il’s surprise trip to ally China late last month.
Analysts say Kim went to China to secure aid for his economy — still reeling from a botched currency reform last year that triggered inflation and wiped out ordinary people’s savings — and to win support for his son Kim Jong-un’s succession.
Compounding the North’s woes, two months of flooding has hit food production that even in a good year falls a million tonnes short of what is needed to feed its 23 million people.
Seoul this week announced its first substantial aid package to its neighbour in more than two years after flooding killed dozens, destroyed thousands of homes and devastated farmland.
On Friday, nine trucks carrying rice crossed the border at Paju, the second shipment inside a day after truckloads of flour headed into North Korea.
Some diplomats and an aid group have said flooding was to blame for the apparent postponement this week of a Workers’ Party conference in Pyongyang, which was meant to bring together the North’s political elite for the first time in 30 years.
The meeting was widely seen as laying the ground for the eventual succession of the ailing Kim Jong-il’s youngest son.
Media reports have also speculated Kim’s health or disputes over a reshuffle of the power structure may have caused the delay. North Korea state media have not mentioned the conference.
In recent weeks, the North has made a series of conciliatory gestures, including releasing a South Korean fishing boat and its crew, as well as an American jailed in the North, and said it wanted to restart the so-called six-party talks joining the two Koreas, the United States, Japan, Russia and host China.
The apparent thaw has given way to shuttle diplomacy between nuclear envoys, fuelling speculation of a resumption in the talks, rendered all but irrelevant when the North tested a nuclear device last year.
The allies have resisted Chinese calls to resume the talks, saying Pyongyang had to show it was committed to dialogue.
Carter, who brought home the jailed American, said he had “received clear, strong signals” that the North wanted new negotiations on a peace treaty with Washington and Seoul and on the denuclearisation of the peninsula.
“They (North Korea) referred to the six-party talks as being ‘sentenced to death but not yet executed’,” Carter wrote in the New York Times on Thursday.
Additional reporting by Jack Kim, Writing by Jeremy Laurence; Editing by Ron Popeski