SEOUL, South Korea (AP) - South Korea's government said Friday it will promote civilian efforts to provide humanitarian assistance to North Korea in hopes of softening a diplomatic freeze deepened by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's growing nuclear ambitions.
South Korean Unification Minister Kwon Youngse didn't specify the type of aid he sees as conceivable or whether it was realistic to expect those exchanges to induce meaningful diplomatic breakthroughs.
North Korea has suspended virtually all cooperation with rival South Korea since the collapse of its nuclear negotiations with the United States in 2019 over disagreements in exchanging the release of U.S.-led sanctions and steps to cut back its nuclear weapons and missiles program.
Kim further ramped up tensions in 2022, test-firing more than 70 missiles, including potentially nuclear-capable weapons of various ranges targeting South Korea and the continental United States.
Kim punctuated his testing activity with provocative statements that North Korea would preemptively use its nukes in crisis situations against South Korea or the U.S., as the allies revived their large-scale military exercises - which had been downsized in recent years - to counter the North's growing threat.
While ignoring South Korean calls for talks, the North has ridiculed President Yoon Suk Yeol's offer for economic benefits in exchange for denuclearization steps, accusing Seoul of recycling "foolish" proposals Pyongyang already rejected.
Kwon's news conference Friday was to address reporters on the ministry's policy plans for 2023. But the dearth of new ideas for reviving dialogue underscored how rising tensions on the Korean Peninsula have sidelined a ministry dedicated to improving relations with the North and promoting an eventual peaceful unification.
Although South Korea's current priority is to maintain a strengthened defense posture against the North in conjunction with its alliance with the United States, it's also critical to make consistent efforts to revive an atmosphere for dialogue, Kwon said.
"To reopen a path for dialogue amid tightly strained South-North relations and to build trust between the South and North, even if it's little by little, we will support the efforts of civilian organizations to resume contact with North Korea and also try to broaden contact through international organizations," said Kwon.
Kwon said that South Korea has not made any new offers for inter-Korean government talks after North Korea ignored repeated calls for meetings in 2022.
The South had proposed talks in May to set up Southern provisions of vaccines and other COVID-19 supplies after the North acknowledged an outbreak. The North was unresponsive again in September, when the South called for a meeting to arrange reunions of families separated since the 1950-53 Korean War ahead of that month's Chuseok holidays, the Korean Thanksgiving.
The reunions of those families, as well as the issue of bringing back South Korean civilians who remain detained by the North, would be prioritized if talks between the Koreas do resume, Kwon said.
Kwon said the ministry also plans to update South Korea's long-term vision for an eventual unification with North Korea to reflect recent changes in global geopolitics and help maintain the South Korean public's support for a future combined statehood, which weakened in recent years amid the North's nuclear push.
The "New Future Initiative on Unification" will be released by the end of the year after an opinion-gathering process, the ministry said in a statement.
The ministry said it will also publicize annual reports on North Korea's human rights record starting in March to raise awareness on the issue.
During an interview with The Associated Press this month, Yoon reiterated his plans to provide economic assistance to North Korea if it shows sincere commitment toward abandoning its nuclear weapons program.
Yoon said he isn't demanding North Korea to completely denuclearize upfront, but appeared to set a high bar for talks, citing inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency as an example of the steps the North should take in order to receive economic benefits.