North Korea on Tuesday released a captive South Korean fishing boat as officials in Seoul considered a request from Pyongyang for emergency storm aid — gestures experts say may signal an easing of tensions on the divided Korean peninsula.
The 41-ton fishing boat Daeseung 55 and its crew of four South Koreans and three Chinese were seized last month. North Korean officials said the vessel had illegally entered their nation’s waters.
The release late Tuesday came as the South Korean government reviewed a North Korean request for rice, cement and construction equipment to help ease the impact of heavy flooding last month. Seoul’s Unification Ministry said the North’s Red Cross sent a letter to its Southern counterpart over the weekend.
A senior presidential official in South Korea said the government is “positively reviewing the request” but no decision has been made. The South in the past has excluded any items it believes could be redirected to military use.
Analysts expect Seoul to approve the rice aid as South Korea’s rice reserves are high and the move is strongly supported by opposition lawmakers as well as civic groups.
Southern officials last month sent two letters to Pyongyang via its Red Cross outlining its intention to provide $8.5 million in humanitarian assistance such as food and first aid kits. The list did not include any of the items in North Korea’s most recent request.
The new dialogue between North and South comes as Pyongyang is set to hold its first major Worker’s Party meetings in 30 years, an event that experts say may explain the regime’s recent conciliatory stance toward its traditional rival.
They add that Seoul also appears more willing to engage in dialogue following months of tension after the South Korean patrol ship Cheonan sank in March, killing 46 crewmembers. An international investigation concluded that Northern forces torpedoed the ship, a charge Pyongyang denies.
“There is definitely some changing policy pattern in South Korea toward the North, but whether it is a fundamental change or just temporary remains to be seen,” said Chung Young-chul, a professor at Sogang University’s Graduate School of Public Policy in Seoul. “But the South Korean government seems to understand that its hard-line policy toward the North has been more or less ineffective, especially with deepening relations between Pyongyang and Beijing.”
South Korea’s presidential office, however, downplayed any change in Seoul’s position.
“Nothing has changed in the government’s policy stance toward North Korea,” said presidential spokeswoman Kim Hee-jung. “It just means that we will continue humanitarian assistance through the Red Cross.”
Seoul’s assistance would mark the first significant aid package since the sinking of the Cheonan.
The North’s return of the fishing boat also contributed to Seoul’s new consideration of Pyongyang’s aid request, analysts say.
“Seoul is realizing that direct South-North dialogue is needed,” Chung said.
Kim is a news assistant in The Times’ Seoul Bureau.