South Korea offered Monday to provide North Korea with 10,000 tons of corn -- its first direct aid to the impoverished neighbour in nearly two years of strained relations.

The small but symbolic offer does not mean Seoul’s conservative government, which has linked aid to Pyongyang’s progress in abandoning its nuclear programs, is resuming full-scale assistance to the communist nation, officials said.

Unification Ministry spokesman Chun Hae-sung stressed that Monday’s offer is purely humanitarian and that Seoul is not considering further assistance.

South Korea’s Red Cross informed North Korean counterparts Monday that it will provide the corn, 20 tons of powdered milk and medical supplies, Chun said. The government will finance the food aid while the rest will be funded by the Red Cross, the spokesman said.

The two Koreas often discuss aid and other humanitarian issues through their Red Cross societies.

For a decade, South Korea was one of the biggest donors to the North, shipping hundreds of thousands of tons of food across the militarized border every year. But the aid stopped after President Lee Myung-bak took office last year with a pledge to get tough on the North.

That change in policy strained relations, and tensions deepened following North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests earlier this year.

North Korea, which has faced chronic food shortages since flooding and mismanagement destroyed its economy in the mid-1990s, typically falls at least 1 million tons short of food every year and relies on outside assistance to feed its 24 million people.

Earlier this month, North Korea demanded unspecified humanitarian aid from South Korea in return for cooperation in reuniting families separated since the Korean War of the 1950s.

Relations between the two Koreas have improved in recent months, with the North reaching out to Seoul and Washington. Observers say the North is feeling the pain of United Nations sanctions put in place after the nuclear and missile tests.

The 1950-53 Korean War ended in a truce, not a peace treaty, leaving the divided peninsula in a state of war.

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