May 27, 2017 12:37 am JST

Seoul lets humanitarian group contact North Koreans

New president paving the way for dialogue with Pyongyang

HIROSHI MINEGISHI, Nikkei staff writer

SEOUL -- A South Korean humanitarian organization can communicate with North Koreans, the Ministry of Unification here said Friday, in a possible key step toward President Moon Jae-in's goal of resuming talks with Pyongyang.

The Korean Sharing Movement had sought permission to fax and email North Korean residents about assistance with malaria control. The South Korean government "will flexibly review inter-Korean exchanges including humanitarian assistance" as long as international sanctions on the North are not undermined, a ministry spokesperson said Friday.

After the sinking of its Cheonan warship in 2010, the South had imposed such unilateral sanctions as a ban on trade and human exchanges, with certain exceptions. It had permitted humanitarian aid, but even this ended after Pyongyang's fourth nuclear test in January 2016. The Korean Sharing Movement is the first civilian organization allowed contact since.

The group will likely ask to visit the North after communicating with residents there. Political heavyweights from the South are expected to come along on the trip, which could be early next month.

Mid-June marks 17 years since then-South Korean President Kim Dae-jung issued a landmark statement with then-North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. The South has received around 20 more requests for contact with the North ahead of the anniversary and is expected to screen and approve them when possible.

The Friday announcement demonstrates Moon's commitment to ending Pyongyang's nuclear development through dialogue rather than sanctions alone. He hopes to open up a channel to the North and use it to take a leading role in global efforts to address the issue. Moon could restart joint economic programs and lift certain sanctions as well.

Ramping up the pressure on a Pyongyang that continues to test-fire ballistic missiles will likely be a key topic at the Group of Seven summit that began in Italy on Friday. Although South Korea had previously pushed the global community to take a hard line on the North, Moon could break ranks with such other key players as Japan and the U.S. by promoting dialogue.

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