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US Wants More Monitors for North Korea Food Program

The United States said Tuesday it wants more outside personnel sent to North Korea to monitor distribution of food aid in the communist country. A monitoring dispute has slowed relief efforts led by the United Nations' World Food program.

The Bush administration says it wants to fully implement the North Korea food aid program it committed to earlier this year, but it says it wants more monitors sent to that country to assure that U.S.-provided food reaches those truly in need.

The United States announced in May that it was resuming food aid to North Korea for the first time since 2005 in response to warnings from aid agencies that the country faced devastating food shortages.

The U.S. pledge was for 500,000 tons of food, most of which was to be distributed by the World Food Program, the WFP.

But officials of the U.N. agency said this week most of the promised food has not been delivered, with the process snagged by disputes between Washington and Pyongyang over ground monitoring and access.

The Washington Post Tuesday quoted a senior WFP official as saying North Korea had met its monitoring commitments, but that the flow of U.S.-provided food had stopped and that the whole program could come to a halt next month because of a lack of supplies.

At a news briefing, State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack said the administration wants to be able to assure taxpayers that U.S. aid is getting to those in need, and that for to happen, additional monitoring personnel are needed.

"This isn't finger-pointing time, OK? This is a time to make it work, and that's we're trying to do. We're trying to focus on making this work because nobody here has an interest in using people who are hungry as chips, as bargaining chips," he said. "That's not what we're doing."

The United States began providing food aid to North Korea in the late 1990's amid famine conditions in the communist state, but the program has been marred over the years by charges that U.S. food was being diverted to the North Korean military or political elite.

A United Nations report this week said that despite a better-than-usual harvest, more than a third of North Korea's population will need food aid in the coming year.

The State Department says about one-third of the promised U.S. aid for this year has been delivered, with the most recent shipment of American corn and soybeans arriving two weeks ago.

It says U.S. food aid decisions are totally unrelated to ongoing international efforts to persuade North Korea to scrap its nuclear program.