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US to Consider Additional Food Aid to N. Korea - 2003-12-11

The United States says it is considering another commitment of U.S. food aid to North Korea before the end of the year despite continuing concerns about how the food is distributed there. The United Nations' World Food Program appealed earlier Thursday in Beijing for emergency assistance to North Korea.

The Bush administration has thus far shipped only 40,000 metric tons of a conditional pledge of up to 100,000 tons of food aid to North Korea for 2003.

But officials do not rule out committing the rest before the end of the year, despite what they say has been an unsatisfactory response from Pyongyang to U.S. calls for more transparency in the way the aid is handed out.

The comments here came in the wake of a new appeal for help by the World Food Program (WFP), which warned it will have to slash its daily rations to the more than six million North Koreans receiving aid because international food contributions have been nearly 40 percent below requested levels.

At a news briefing, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said U.S. concerns about distribution remain and that administration officials are deliberating about what to do about a further commitment.

"North Korea has not allowed the World Food Program access to all the vulnerable North Koreans, and has restricted in many ways the World Food Program's ability to monitor the distribution of food aid," he said. "That's been a concern throughout the year. At this point, we've made no decision on additional U.S. food aid for North Korea, nothing new to announce. And we're considering that extra chunk of 2003 assistance right now, and deciding what we ought to do before the end of the calendar year."

Mr. Boucher said the United States would, even at this late date, welcome any action by North Korea to improve transparency but did not rule out more U.S. aid even the absence of such steps.

He said factors in the internal U.S. debate are North Korea's requirements as established by the WFP, competing needs of other countries, as well as the issue of insuring that the food actually reaches the people for whom it is intended.

The United States has been the single-biggest contributor of food aid to North Korea though levels have declined in recent years, amid concerns that aid has been siphoned off to the North Korean military and the political elite in Pyongyang.

A U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff delegation that visited Pyongyang last month said the World Food Program has been able to take some "small, but significant" steps to enhance its distribution effort in North Korea and prevent the diversion of aid.

It also said there was a wide-spread belief among North Korean officials that the United States is using food aid as a weapon, a suggestion strongly denied here.

In its emergency appeal in Beijing, the World Food Program said potential donor nations have been unwilling to give because of the political crisis over North Korea's nuclear program.

In appealing for more than $160 million worth of international help for the coming year, the WFP said that in the absence of new pledges it would have to cut its daily food allotment to 300 grams per person, less than half of a survival ration.