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US Says It Is Not Worried About South Korea's Food Aid to North

The U.S. ambassador to South Korea says Washington and Seoul do not have widely divergent views on North Korea, despite an announcement Sunday that the South is ready on its own and outside the six-party nuclear talks framework to provide food aid to the North. VOA's Stephanie Ho reports from Washington.

The current U.S. ambassador to South Korea, Alexander Vershbow, did not share the concerns of one of his predecessors about Seoul's food deal.

He said the goal of each of the countries negotiating with Pyongyang is the same. "I don't think our approach and that of the South Koreans is as divergent as you suggest. Yes, the South Koreans, and the Chinese as well, are not interested in seeing precipitous change or regime collapse. They worry about the flow of refugees and the economic burdens of rapid change. But I think that they certainly agree with us that it is an immediate priority, and an urgent priority, to deal with the nuclear weapons," he said.

Vershbow was responding to Jim Lilley, a former U.S. ambassador to South Korea and China, who said he has reservations about South Korea's agreement to send 400 tons of rice to North Korea, beginning next month. "I think most of us are concerned about the North Korean arrangement with South Korea," he said.

Lilley said he thinks the United States has a difference of opinion with China and South Korea on what approach the international community should take toward North Korea. He said Washington places a priority on persuading Pyongyang to completely abandon its nuclear weapons programs, while Seoul and Beijing appear to be concerned with maintaining stability and developing North Korea's economy.

But Vershbow, addressing the same audience in Washington, said the South Korean aid is linked to Pyongyang's compliance with the February 13 agreement, reached as part of the so-called Six Party Talks process, to begin dismantling North Korea's nuclear facilities.

"It's my impression that they made very clear to the North Koreans that, as they've announced, that the timing and speed of the actual delivery of the rice and fertilizer aid will be contingent on fulfillment of North Korea's obligations under the February 13 agreement," he said.

Vershbow said delivery of the South Korean food aid will not start until the end of May, so that gives the North Koreans time to, in his words, "come around and get back on track in implementing its commitments." Pyongyang missed an April 14 deadline to begin closing its main nuclear reactor because of a dispute over frozen North Korean funds in a Macau bank.

Although the South Korean deal announced Sunday is separate from the Six Party process, Vershbow said it is closely synchronized to those talks, which include the United States, North Korea, China, South Korea, Japan and Russia. "We remain confident that we're on the same page on this issue, and that we know is the key to success. If the North Koreans can divide us, of course, progress is far less likely," he said.

Vershbow just completed a cross-country trip throughout the United States with his South Korean counterpart, Lee Tae-sik, to, in Vershbow's words, "talk up the U.S.-Korean relationship."

Their trip last week was jolted by the shooting at Virginia Tech. The 23-year-old gunman came to the United States from South Korea. Vershbow said South Koreans initially feared a backlash, which never materialized.

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