The United States said Wednesday it will provide 50,000 metric tons of food aid to North Korea. The State Department said the decision is based on need, and not efforts to lure North Korea back to multi-lateral talks on its nuclear program.
The announcement came amid signs North Korea may be preparing to return to the Chinese-sponsored nuclear talks after a year's absence.
But officials here insisted the U.S. decision to provide new food aid is unrelated to the six-party talks, and based solely on United Nations assessments of need, coupled with North Korean promises to the U.N.'s World Food Program to make the food distribution process more transparent.
Concerns about the diversion of food aid to the North Korean military or others in that closed society not requiring it have been chronic since the United States began providing aid to that country in the mid-1990s in response to a flood-related famine disaster.
At a news briefing, State Department Deputy Spokesman Adam Ereli said there has been recent movement on the transparency issue, and that Pyongyang has told the World Food Program it is rescinding restrictions on outside monitoring of food distribution it had imposed late last year.
"The World Food Program is attempting to implement a new approach to monitoring that if fully implemented, would make diversion easier to detect," he said. "The World Food Program reports that so far, North Korea is cooperating with the new approach, and in addition, North Korea has now reversed most of the newly-imposed restrictions."
In a written statement, the State Department said that even if the World Food Program's new monitoring system is fully implemented, North Korea would still fall short of meeting international standards of humanitarian access.
It said the United States again calls on Pyongyang to improve humanitarian monitoring and access, and said current restrictions continue to severely limit the ability of the international community to determine the extent of food needs and the location of the most vulnerable people.
It said the objective of the new 50,000-ton aid commitment is to help relieve the suffering of the North Korean people, despite U.S. concerns about that government's policies.
The U.S. decision followed a warning by the World Food Program in May that it might have to cut off all aid to North Korea by October without new donations. The U.N. agency provides all or most of the food consumed by more than six million people in North Korea, about one-fourth of its entire population.
The new U.S. pledge, to be targeted on children and small-scale food security projects in North Korea, matches the 50,000 tons the United States provided in 2004 though Mr. Ereli would not rule out the possibility of another commitment later in the year.
In 2003, 100,000 tons of food was provided, in two installments.
The United States has been the single-biggest provider of food aid to North Korea over the past decade, though U.S. commitments have tapered off since reaching a peak of nearly 700,000 metric tons during the height of the food crisis there in 1999.