SEOUL, Mar 31 – South Korea said Thursday it would allow a private group to send aid to North Korea, the first such approval since the North\’s deadly bombardment of a border island last November.
The unification ministry, which must by law authorise cross-border contacts, said it has approved a request by the Eugene Bell Foundation, a US group which has a South Korean subsidiary, to send tuberculosis medicine to the North.
The aid is worth 336 million won ($305,177), a spokeswoman told AFP.
Seoul halted private cross-border aid after the shelling killed four people including two civilians and sparked outrage in the South.
Thursday\’s approval followed a United Nations report last week which painted a dire picture of the humanitarian situation in the impoverished communist state.
"There have been voices that at least civic groups should be allowed to send aid to North Korea. The government has taken these factors into account," Yonhap news agency quoted a ministry official as saying.
The ministry would consider other requests by relief groups to send humanitarian aid, the unidentified official was quoted as saying.
The World Food Programme and other UN agencies said in their report last week that more than six million Northerners urgently need food assistance.
UN food agency officials visiting the South this week have stressed the need for major food aid for the North, without directly asking Seoul to contribute.
Tensions on the peninsula rose sharply after the shelling attack. But in an abrupt change of tack this year, the North has been calling for dialogue with the South and moderating its rhetoric.
It has also appealed to the United States and a variety of other countries for food aid.
Meanwhile, South Korean activists Thursday launched tens of thousands of anti-regime leaflets across the border into North Korea, defying threats from Pyongyang to open fire on launch sites.
Members of Fighters for Free North Korea released gas-filled balloons which carried 200,000 leaflets containing news of Arab uprisings and calling for the overthrow of Kim Jong-Il\’s regime, the group leader said.
The 10 helium-filled balloons also carried hundreds of DVDs, USB flash drives and one-dollar bills, said Park Sang-Hak, the leader of the group of North Korean defectors in the South.
"We are not afraid of the North\’s threat and the village residents here have supported our activities for years," he told AFP, referring to Thursday\’s launch site at Gimpo on the western outskirts of Seoul.
Pyongyang has several times threatened to open fire with artillery at launch sites, unnerving some border residents.
The defector group\’s plan last week to launch leaflets from the tense frontier island of Baengnyeong flopped amid bad weather and strong protests by villagers who feared attracting an attack from the North.
The foiled plan aimed to mark the first anniversary of the North\’s alleged sinking of a Seoul warship that killed 46 sailors in March 2010. Pyongyang has denied sinking the ship.
The isolated communist country has always reacted angrily to leaflet launches. Experts say the Kim dynasty, which has ruled with an iron fist since 1948, has been trying to block news of revolts against Arab leaders.
The dollar bills are intended to encourage North Koreans to pick up and read the leaflets despite the risk of punishment.
Cross-border tension has been especially high since Pyongyang\’s shelling of a border island that left four South Koreans dead last November.