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US Officials Visit North Korea to Arrange Possible Emergency Food Aid

A team of United States officials is visiting North Korea to survey the country's desperate food shortage. The visit is a possible prelude to the United States supplying food aid. VOA Seoul Correspondent Kurt Achin has more.

The U.S. visit to North Korea comes amidst the country's dire shortage of basic food staples.

South Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman Moon Tae-young said Tuesday, the American envoys are looking to help.

He points out that last year's massive flooding caused a poor harvest in North Korea. Also, a spike in world grain prices means less grain is available, worldwide. He says the U.S. team has been assigned to assess conditions and discuss means of providing aid.

Warnings about the North Korean situation are coming from many sides. The United Nations World Food Program says the North's food production is likely to fall at least 40 percent short of the minimum its citizens need to survive.

Last week, the Washington-based Peterson Institute for International Economics warned the North is facing its most "precarious situation" since a mid-1990s famine, when hundreds of thousands of people are believed to have died of starvation. The South Korean aid group "Good Friends" says rations have been sharply reduced or eliminated, even in Pyongyang, among the usually privileged political elite.

Relations between the two Koreas have been chilled since the February inauguration of conservative President Lee Myung-bak, who ended previous administration policies of unconditional food aid. Mr. Lee has said humanitarian aid from Seoul is contingent on North Korean progress in eliminating its nuclear weapons.

In recent days, the Lee administration has softened that stance, saying it will come forward with food aid, but only if North Korea formally requests it. Analysts say North Korea might view doing so as a loss of face, after recent public declarations it could easily do without the South's handouts.

Multinational talks aimed at ending North Korea's nuclear weapons are expected to reconvene later this month. American officials may use that occasion to announce measures aimed at easing the North's food crisis.