South Korea allowed on Friday a civic group to contact the North to discuss the resumption of humanitarian projects and aid in what was seen as the first practical implementation of new President Moon Jae-in’s goal to establish dialogue with Pyongyang.
The Korean Sharing Movement NGO has been authorized to contact North Korea over help in fighting malaria.
The center-left president favors engagement with the North to bring it to the negotiating table, rather than the hardline stance taken by the conservative government of his ousted predecessor Park Geun-Hye.
Unauthorized contacts with North Koreans or visits to the North are punishable by jail terms in the South.
But the Unification Ministry gave the green light to a request by the Korean Sharing Movement.
“The government’s stance is that it should remain flexible in handling civilian exchanges such as humanitarian aid as long as they don’t compromise the international sanctions regime against the North,” ministry spokeswoman Lee Eugene told reporters.
“While the new government maintains a stance of firmly responding to North Korean provocations like missile launches, it’s also clear that the current severance in ties between the South and North isn’t ideal for stabilizing the situation in the Korean Peninsula,” Lee said.
The decision comes even as tensions remain high after North Korea test-fired this month its longest-range ballistic missile yet.
The two Koreas are technically still at war after the 1950-53 conflict ended only with a ceasefire instead of a peace treaty.
The North has staged two atomic tests and dozens of missile tests since the beginning of last year in its quest to build a missile capable of delivering a nuclear warhead to the continental United States.
Moon, who advocates dialogue with Pyongyang unlike his two conservative predecessors, said in his inauguration speech this month that he was willing to visit Pyongyang “in the right circumstances” to defuse tension.
But he slammed a subsequent missile launch as a “reckless provocation”.
The ministry’s Lee stressed that Seoul will remain firm in addressing the North’s nuclear and missile threats.
The Korean Sharing Movement seeks to supply malaria tablets for North Koreans living near their shared border, which would also help prevent the mosquito-borne disease spreading to the South, she added.
Group officials said they last sent anti-malaria supplies to North Korea in 2011.
This will be the first government approval on cross-border civilian exchanges since North Korea’s fourth nuclear test in January 2016, officials said Friday.
Despite the lack of South Korean assistance, North Korea has in recent years reported declining cases of malaria largely thanks to anti-malaria aid programs by international organizations. According to World Health Organization records, North Korea had 21,850 malaria cases in 2012, but 7,010 cases in 2015.
The presence of malaria in North Korea’s southern regions also poses a health problem for South Koreans as malaria-carrying mosquitoes fly southward across the countries’ heavily fortified border.