News / Asia

US, North Korea to Discuss New American Food Aid

US rights envoy Robert King  (File Photo)
US rights envoy Robert King (File Photo)
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U.S. and North Korean envoys meet in Beijing Thursday to discuss a possible resumption of U.S. food aid to the reclusive communist state. The talks will focus on guarantees, sought by the United States,  that U.S. assistance will go only to North Koreans truly in need. 

The State Department says a team led by Robert King, U.S. special envoy for North Korean human rights issues, will meet North Korean officials in Beijing on terms for the possible re-start of food aid to Pyongyang after a break of more than two and a half years.

Despite its political differences with North Korea, the United States has been the biggest single contributor of food aid to the communist state since its famine in the 1990’s.

But the program has been hampered by recurring reports of diversion of food donations to North Korea’s military or members of its political elite.

The most recent U.S. aid effort was suspended in early 2009 over North Korea’s resistance to allowing Korean-speaking monitors to observe food distribution.

At a news briefing, State Department Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said U.S. envoy King will probe whether North Korea is prepared to submit to more rigorous monitoring.

“Were we to decide to go forward with this, we would need to have much more strict and clear monitoring systems in place in order to move forward," said Nuland. "So that is ‘Topic A’ for the conversations between special envoy King and his DPKR interlocutors in Beijing, who will include Ambassador Ri Gun, the DPRK Director-General for North American Affairs.”

The American team includes U.S. Agency for International Development deputy assistant administrator Jon Brause, who held preliminary talks on the issue in North Korea last May.

U.S. spokeswoman Nuland referred repeatedly to possible U.S. “nutritional assistance” to North Korea as opposed to conventional food aid, such as the bulk commodities like rice and corn provided in the past.

“When you think about food, you think about sacks of rice, cans of food, things that might easily be diverted to the wrong purpose," said Nuland. "When you talk about nutritional assistance, it could be that. But it could also be things like vitamin supplements to populations in need like women and children. It could also be high-protein biscuits or other things that you would only need to use for populations in need and would not find themselves on some leader’s banquet table.”

Aid agencies say North Korea’s food situation is the worst in several years, with torrential rains and harsh winter weather early this year cutting harvests and prompting appeals for help from Pyongyang.

Spokeswoman Nuland said U.S. envoy King will return to Washington right after the Beijing talks to report to administration officials but did not say when a decision on new aid, if any, might be made.

She said the talks are totally separate from ongoing discussions about resuming Chinese-sponsored six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear program.

Newly-named U.S. envoy for North Korea Glyn Davies held talks with senior Chinese officials in Beijing Tuesday as part of a regional tour for consultations on the nuclear issue.

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