South Korea has approved $8 mn in humanitarian aid for North Korea, in a gesture of goodwill despite calls by Japan and the United States for heightened economic and diplomatic pressure on Pyongyang.
South Korea's unification ministry announced the aid package, which will go towards programmes for infants and pregnant women, days after the UN Security Council agreed a further round of sanctions in response to the regime's recent nuclear test.
The unification ministry, which oversees cross-border relations in the divided nation, however, said the aid package has no cash component and hence would offer no aid to the rogue regime of the impoverished North Korea.
There was ''realistically no possibility'' that the aid could be of any use to the North Korean military and the measure should remain unaffected by rising political tensions on the peninsula, the ministry said.
Under the package, about $4.5 million of nutrition-rich supplies will be distributed to children and pregnant women in North Korea through the UN World Food Programme. A further $3.5 million will go to Unicef to fund vaccinations and treatments for diarrhoea, acute respiratory diseases and malnutrition, the unification ministry said.
South Korea's unification minister, Cho Myung-gyon, said the government had ''consistently said we would pursue humanitarian aid for North Korea in consideration of the poor conditions there among children and pregnant women''.
While the decision to release funds for humanitarian programmes for infants and pregnant women risks rift with hardliners US and Japan, a break with the hardline policy is needed to foster moves for a reunification of the two Koreas.
US and Japan regard any engagement with North Korea as a concession to a regime which is accelerating nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programmes.
Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, in a recent telephone call to South Korean President Moon Jae-in, is reported to have sought a change in the timing of the aid package as it could undermine international efforts to put pressure on North Korea.
Unicef's regional director for East Asia and the Pacific, Karin Hulshof, said North Korean children faced problems that were ''all too real''.
''Today, we estimate that about 200,000 children are affected by acute malnutrition, heightening their risk of death and increasing rates of stunting,'' Hulshof said. ''Food and essential medicines and equipment to treat young children are in short supply.''
An estimated 18 million of North Korea's 25 million people require assistance due to food shortages and malnutrition, according to the UN. The World Health Organisation estimates the mortality rate among North Korean children aged five and under at 25 per 1,000, compared with three in every 1,000 in South Korea.
Former South Korean President Park Geun-hye had halted humanitarian aid to North Korea after the regime conducted a nuclear test in January 2016 and the decision to resume aid is reported to have dented Moon's popularity, although his approval rating is still high at just over 65 per cent.