(Adds WFP spokesman)
By Jon Herskovitz
SEOUL, Aug 21 South Korea is considering giving food aid to North Korea through a U.N. agency, after Seoul halted direct shipments of rice because of political tensions with its neighbour, a government official said on Thursday.
A Unification Ministry spokesman said the U.N. World Food Programme has asked South Korea to contribute $60 million to the WFP's plan to feed more than 6 million of the neediest people in North Korea, which has a population of 23 million.
"Our stance has always been (that if there is a dire need), humanitarian assistance can be given unconditionally, regardless of political issues," said spokesman Kim Ho-nyeon.
The WFP last month said parts of North Korea were experiencing their worst food shortages in nearly a decade.
Kim said South Korea, which has contributed to aid programmes for North Korea before under previous presidents, has yet to make a decision on the WFP request. The $60 million could buy about 75,000 tonnes of rice or 150,000 tonnes or corn.
South Korea has typically given about 400,000 tonnes of rice a year directly to North Korea, which battles chronic shortages, but ties chilled between the states after a new South Korean president took office in February with pledges to get tough on Pyongyang.
Paul Risley, a WFP spokesman, confirmed the agency had asked South Korea to contribute to its aid programme, which has greatly expanded this year.
"We provided the Republic of Korea (South Korea) with broad information of the overall costs of the entire operation and suggested the importance of making a very substantial contribution," Risley said by telephone from Bangkok.
President Lee Myung-bak has tried to end what had largely been the unconditional flow of aid to North Korea under his predecessors. Lee said handouts would be tied to progress North Korea makes in nuclear disarmament.
The North, used to receiving aid with few questions asked, has lashed out at Lee, calling him a "traitor to the nation". Ties frayed further after a North Korean soldier last month shot dead a South Korean tourist at a mountain resort in the North.
Flooding last year, higher commodity prices and wrangling with South Korea have pushed North Korea to a food shortfall similar to ones it faced about a decade ago when famine killed an estimated 1 million people, experts have said.
While South Korea has stepped back in providing food aid, the United States has stepped up and started in June to send 500,000 tonnes of pledged food aid, most of which will be distributed by the WFP.
The WFP has an extensive monitoring programme in secretive North Korea to try to ensure the food makes its way to the needy and not into the hands of the North's powerful military. (Additional reporting by Kim Junghyun; Editing by David Fogarty)