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US Lawmakers Voice Concern Over North Korea Food Aid

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (official photo)
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (official photo)

Several U.S. lawmakers have voiced concern over a new North Korean request that the Obama administration provide it with food aid. The request comes as tensions are high on the Korean peninsula and amid concerns that the North is facing serious food shortages.

Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the chairwoman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs says that if the request is approved there must be a full accounting of the aid to make sure it gets to those who need it and is not used to support the Kim Jong Il's regime.

"There are some grave concerns about this proposal. There is the question of the American food aid remaining in North Korean warehouses when Pyongyang expelled American humanitarian NGOs in the spring of 2009. Pyongyang distributed this food, without monitoring," she said.

Ros-Lehtinen spoke about food aid on Thursday at a hearing on the North entitled: "North Korea’s Sea of Fire: Bullying, Brinkmanship and Blackmail." She says that given that next year is the 100th birth anniversary of Kim Jong Il's father, there is a danger that some of the aid could be used for "spectacle."

"Lest we forget, in December 2008, U. S. shipments of food aid to North Korea via the World Food Program was suspended due to growing concerns about diversion by the North Korean military and regime elite and the World Food Programs's lack of effective monitoring and safeguards," she said.

The choice is a difficult one for the Obama administration because there is concern that awarding the North with food aid could be perceived as a reward for bad behavior. And no action could be perceived as ignoring a humanitarian need.

Over the past year, North Korea has been accused of launching two unprovoked military attacks on South Korea. It has also revealed a uranium enrichment program that could increase its ability to produce nuclear weapons, raising its threat to countries in the region and the United States.

Five non-governmental U.S. charities, that recently visited the reclusive country, say harsh weather and floods in recent months have destroyed much of the crops, including grains and vegetables.

They say the families worst hit by the shortages are those that depend on the public food distribution system.

The Obama administration has yet to make a decision and officials have stressed close monitoring of the assistance would be necessary.

Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell is traveling in Asia this week and will visit Seoul on Saturday. Campbell says that any decision on food aid would be made in close coordination with South Korea.

Speaking at the same hearing, Ed Royce, a Republican Congressman from California says it is clear from the accounts of non-government organizations and defectors how Pyongyang uses food aid.

"A top North Korean defector told the Wall Street Journal last week [that] we must not give food aid to North Korea. Doing so, he says, in his words, is the same as providing funding for North Korea's nuclear program," Royce said.

However, Donald Payne, a Democrat from New Jersey says the U.S. has a humanitarian responsibility to the people of North Korea and shouldn't let them get caught in the middle of a political dispute. "[I] do feel that we should continue to give food aid. We do find that there are flaws sometime in our program, but I think many more people will be helped with the food aid than those we feel should not be participating in it," Payne said.

Famine in the mid-1990's is believed to have resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths. Since then North Korea has been dependent on foreign food as a result of natural disasters and mismanagement of its economy.