SEOUL - South Korea said on Monday it has approved a request by a private aid group to send fertilizer to North Korea, the first such move in nearly five years that signalled a slight relaxing of sanctions imposed after one of its navy ships was attacked.
South Korea's Unification Ministry, which handles ties with the North, said it approved the shipment of 15 tonnes of fertilizer as part of a charity group's project to build a greenhouse farm in the North.
The approval came despite a deadlock in dialogue between the two states and a ban on large-scale public or private aid to the impoverished North since May 2010, although some forms of help such as medicine have been allowed on humanitarian grounds.
South Korea imposed sanctions in May 2010 after a torpedo attack sank one of its navy ships killing 46 sailors, cutting off most political and commercial exchanges with the North. The North denies Seoul's accusation that it was behind the attack.
Although the approval of fertiliser shipment was symbolic as the first of its kind in five years, a Unification Ministry official said it did not automatically mean the government was considering the resumption of large state-sponsored aid.
"Large-scale fertilizer support for North Korea should take inter-Korean situations and public consensus into account," a Unification Ministry official said.
Gyeongam Foundation, a charity fund run by bed manufacturer Ace, has been operating the agricultural support programme to build greenhouses for North Koreans and providing farming equipment.
During a period of warming ties beginning in 2000, South Korea supplied as much as 350,000 tonnes of fertilizer to the North annually, and up to 500,000 tonnes of rice as a goodwill gesture by the liberal leaders in Seoul in office at the time.
The election of a conservative leader in the South who took office in 2008 soured relations, with aid from the South falling sharply.
Food production in North Korea has improved in recent years largely due to favourable weather and minor changes to its farm policy, but it still relies on foreign aid to make up for the deficit in what is needed to feed its people.
North Korea, already heavily sanctioned by the United Nations for its missile and nuclear tests, is technically still at war with the South after the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a truce, not with a peace treaty.
After a delegation of high-level North Korean officials made a surprise visit in October last year to the closing ceremony of the Asian Games, South Korea has said it was willing to discuss the sanctions as a way to move forward in their ties.
North Korea has since refused to resume dialogue.