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SKorea defends renewed food aid to North

South Korea’s decision to resume food aid to North Korea is based on humanitarian concerns and is not linked to the standoff over neighbor’s nuclear program, a top official said Thursday.

The renewed food aid - to be sent to the North via the World Food Program - is "totally different in its character" to a promised shipment of 400,000 tons of rice that South Korea has put on hold until after Pyongyang acts on a February pledge to shut down its main nuclear reactor, Unification Minister Lee Jae-joung told reporters.

South Korea decided to accept a request by the WFP for food donations worth some US$21 million-US$23 million (EUR15.8 million - EUR17.3 million) "in light of the difficult food situations in North Korea," Lee said.

North Korea has relied on outside aid to feed its 23 million people since its economy was devastated by natural disasters and mismanagement in the mid-1990s.

Separately, the government also plans to send 10,500 tons of rice directly to the communist regime as part of emergency flood aid pledged last year, "in consideration of the urgency in delivering humanitarian assistance," he said.

Optimism has grown this week that a banking dispute that has kept North Korea from taking steps to start dismantling its nuclear program could come to an end soon after Russia offered to help to resolve the issue.

Seoul's renewed promise to send food aid to the North "has nothing to do" with the reported progress on the financial dispute, Lee stressed.

South Korea has often come under criticism for being too soft on the North -jumping on opportunities to lavish assistance on its communist neighbor.

Although the two countries remain technically at war since the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a cease-fire that has never been replaced by a peace treaty, they have made big strides toward reconciliation after the historic 2000 summit of their leaders.

The South has yet to determine exactly how much food it will donate to the WFP for delivery to the North, but "plans to respect" the U.N. food agency's latest request of 44,000 tons of food: 24,000 tons of corn, 12,000 tons of beans, 5,000 tons of wheat, 2,000 tons of flour and 1,000 ton of powdered milk, according to Lee.

It will be the first time South Korea has provided food aid to the North via the WFP since 2004. Seoul skipped donations to the WFP in 2005 and 2006 as its direct assistance to the North increased, before all aid stopped amid nuclear tensions.

The WFP welcomed South Korea's donations.

"This crucial and very generous donation will allow us to increase our response to the most pressing needs of the people" of North Korea, WFP Executive Director Josette Sheeran said in a statement released Thursday.

The South Korean contribution will help the agency to more than double the number of people it feeds, from 700,000 to 1.9 million North Koreans, the statement said.

The Rome-based agency still warned that there are millions more North Koreans "who are going without food assistance to cover their nutritional needs," and appealed for more donations from other countries.

The separate 10,500 tons of rice aid is the remaining shipment of aid pledged to the North when it was hit hard by heavy floods last year.