The Bush administration Friday denied a news report it had halted food-aid shipments to North Korea and may not provide any such assistance this year. The State Department said further contributions are under consideration.
U.S. food contributions to North Korea have been declining in recent years amid political tensions with Pyongyang and concern about whether American aid has been reaching those most in need.
But the State Department says U.S. food aid decisions are unrelated to political issues, and it has flatly denied a Wall Street Journal report Friday that aid had been halted and may not resume this year.
At news briefing State Department Spokesman Richard Boucher said U.S. policy with regard to food aid to North Korea will depend, as it has before, on assessments of need, the ability to make sure the food gets to the people who need it, and on competing needs from other countries like Sudan threatened by famine.
"At this point we are considering the needs of North Korea. We are following the situation closely. We will want to look at the production," he said. "We'll want to look at the monitoring. We want to keep in touch with the organizations who do this and supply this. And we'll make our decision in due course. But it's wrong to say that we've halted it. We completed last year's shipments of 50-thousand tons, and we're considering what we might want to do this year."
Last year's 50,000 ton U.S. food commitment to North Korea was half the amount provided in 2003.
Overall U.S. aid has declined sharply since the late 1990's when an estimated two million North Koreans starved to death in a famine caused by floods and a virtual collapse of the country's agricultural system.
The decline from the 1990's, when the United States was providing several hundred thousand tons of food aid to North Korea each year, has drawn charges the Bush administration is using the aid as a political tool, to try to prod Pyongyang back to nuclear disarmament talks. Mr. Boucher said any such contention is incorrect.
"We have made clear, and the Secretary (of State Rice) made clear during her visit to Asia that we don't calibrate or decide on food assistance based on political factors. We do want to help the people of North Korea, and make sure that the people who are in need get the food they need. And so it doesn't have to do with the comings and goings and rise and fall of the six-party talks or any other issue like that," he said.
U.S. officials have long been concerned about monitoring of food aid distribution in North Korea, amid charges food has been siphoned off to the country's military establishment.
When it announced a second installment of food aid to North Korea at the end of 2003, the State Department said the U.N. World Food Program had been able to secure some concessions from Pyongyang on the transparency of the distribution process but that the overall situation remained inadequate.
The World Food Program, which helps feed about one-third of North Korea's population, warned Friday that contributed supplies were dwindling rapidly and that it might have to cut off all North Korean aid by October without new donations.