SEOUL, South Korea – SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korea announced plans Monday to send 5,000 tons of rice and other aid to flood-stricken North Korea in a sign of easing tension between the divided countries.
That would mark South Korea's first major aid shipment to North Korea since the deadly sinking of a South Korean warship in March that killed 46 sailors. Earlier Monday, the Defense Ministry's final investigation concluded a North Korean submarine fired a torpedo that sank the ship, as suspected. North Korea denies the charge.
The sinking raised tensions, but there have been signs of a thaw in recent weeks. And a senior U.S. envoy even expressed optimism Monday that the impasse in negotiations with North Korea over its nuclear weapons program could be resolved soon.
North Korea pulled out of the disarmament talks last year to protest international criticism of its long-range rocket launch. Prospects for restarting the talks were further undermined following the warship sinking.
"I'm optimistic that at some point in the not-too-distant future we can be back engaged," American envoy Stephen Bosworth said during a meeting with South Korea's Vice Foreign Minister Shin Kak-soo.
Bosworth was in South Korea as part of an Asian tour concerning the deadlocked negotiations, which hope to persuade the North to give up its atomic weapons ambitions in exchange for aid.
The impoverished North has relied on outside food aid to feed much of its 24 million people since the mid-1990s, and experts fear the latest flooding exacerbated the North's chronic food shortage.
The worsening economic situation in the North appears to be behind the recent thaw.
"North Korea is trying to resolve the difficult situation — the flooding damage and worsening economic woes — by improving ties with South Korea," said Kim Yong-hyun, a North Korea expert at Seoul's Dongguk University.
Better relations with South Korea are also seen as the first step toward the resumption of the nuclear talks, Kim said.
South Korea's government is planning to send 10 billion won ($8.5 million) in relief assistance to help the North recover from heavy flooding that swamped farmland, houses and public buildings in its northwest last month, the South's Red Cross chief Yoo Chong-ha told reporters.
An estimated 80,000-90,000 people were affected by the flooding and the 5,000 tons of rice can feed about 100,000 people for 100 days, Yoo said. The aid was expected to be delivered within a month, he said.
North Korea's Red Cross agreed to Yoo's offer to hold talks Friday at the North Korean border village of Kaesong. Discussions will focus on the resumption of a program that brings together families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War, the Unification Ministry said in a statement Monday.
The North proposed such talks over the weekend.
More than 20,800 separated families have been briefly reunited through face-to-face meetings or by video following a landmark inter-Korean summit in 2000. However, the program stalled a year ago as ties between the countries deteriorated.
The reunion program is highly emotional for Koreans, as most applying are elderly and eager to see loved ones before they die.
In other conciliatory gestures toward Seoul and Washington, the North recently freed the seven-member crew of a South Korean fishing boat and an imprisoned American during a visit by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter.
Despite these improvements, it remains unclear whether the six-party nuclear talks will restart anytime soon because American, South Korean and Japanese officials have called on Pyongyang to come clean on the warship sinking and express a sincere willingness to disarm before the negotiations can resume.
"I would emphasize that the U.S. is not interested in talking just for the sake of talking with the North Koreans," Bosworth said. "So we will be looking for indication that North Korea shares that desire and that determination."
His trip also came amid uncertainty over whether North Korea has begun a rare Workers' Party meeting believed aimed at giving a top party job to a son of leader Kim Jong Il has begun.
South Korean intelligence chief Won Sei-hoon told a parliamentary committee Monday he expected the meeting to take place later this week, according to the office of lawmaker Park Young-sun who attended the closed-door briefing.
Associated Press writer Sangwon Yoon contributed to this report.