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North Korean ships in South for first time in decades to pick up aid

ULSAN, South Korea, May 22 (AFP) - North Korean cargo ships on Sunday arrived in South Korea for the first time in two decades to pick up fertilizer aid and take it back to the impoverished communist state, officials said.

The unification ministry here said the North sent three ships into South Korean waters overnight. They are due to return home on Wednesday with their consignments of fertilizer.

Escorted by the South's navy and coast guard boats, the North's ships began docking one-by-one at three different ports on the southern and western coasts, according to maritime police.

It is the first time since 1984, when Pyongyang supplied cement to South Korea by sea after a devastating typhoon, that Seoul has allowed ships from the North to dock at its ports.

Thousands of tonnes of bagged fertilizer awaited shipment from a pier at Ulsan, 410 kilometers (254 miles) southeast of Seoul, Sunday when one of the three ships first anchored off the coast, witnesses said.

The freighter, which had a white-painted bridge inscribed with a North Korean flag, was then led by a small guiding boat into the pier at Ulsan port, they said.

Unification ministry officials in Seoul said it would be loaded with some 5,000 tonnes of fertilizer at the port before its departure on Wednesday.

"The North Korean cargo ship has safely entered the Ulsan port," said an official at the Ulsan maritime police. He later added the 6,831-tonne freighter was carrying 50 crew and officials.

The other two North Korean vessels were due to dock at Gunsan, 270 kilometers southwest of Seoul, late Sunday and at Yeosu, 455 kilometers south of Seoul, early Monday, according to the maritime police.

Last week South Korea agreed to donate 200,000 tonnes of fertilizer in humanitarian aid to North Korea during senior-level peace talks. On Saturday, 1,250 tonnes of fertilizer was transported to the North by truck.

Despite years of peace initiatives, the two Koreas share one of the world's most heavily guarded borders drawn by the bloody 1950-1953 conflict.

Officials in Seoul said they expect more North and South Korean cargo ships to sail across the inter-Korean maritime border in the next few weeks to complete the shipment of fertilizer.

They said South Korea plans to ship about 190,000 tonnes of fertilizer by sea and 10,000 tonnes of fertilizer by land to North Korea.

North Korea is in dire need of fertilizer as the communist state's agricultural industry has been devastated by policy failures and years of floods and droughts.

The North relies heavily on handouts to feed its 23 million people.

The latest fertilizer aid for North Korea was agreed at the first inter-Korean talks in 10 months, where South Korea urged Pyongyang to return to six-way talks over its nuclear weapons program.

North Korea agreed to resume cabinet-level talks with South Korea in Seoul on June 21-24 during the meeting, but sidestepped the call for returning to the nuclear disarmament talks.
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