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US Mulling Decision to Send Envoy to North Korea

North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il inspecting the Pyongyang Vegetable Science Institute in Pyongyang, March 4, 2011

An announcement is expected to be made within days by the U.S. State Department on whether there will be a rare diplomatic mission to North Korea.

A South Korean official says the United States has decided to send a representative to discuss the communist regime's urgent request for food aid.

The official spoke Tuesday in Seoul on the condition of anonymity because the decision has not been formally announced.

The trip, according to the sources, would be led by Ambassador Robert King, the special envoy for North Korean human rights issues. It would assess Pyongyang’s urgent requests for substantial outside food aid.

A visiting U.S. envoy to Seoul, Stephen Bosworth, was asked about that after meeting with officials at South Korea’s Foreign Ministry Tuesday.

“We will be making a decision on that in the next few days and it will be announced from Washington," he said. "We had a good discussion today of the North Korean request for food assistance. And, I think, we have largely reached a common view on that and we will be addressing that as we move ahead.”

Ambassador Bosworth, the special representative for North Korean policy, is on his first trip to South Korea in four months. It comes amid continuing international discussions about the food situation in the North.

South Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman Cho Byung-je says Seoul and Washington share “almost” the same stance on the issue of providing food to North Korea.

Cho says even if Ambassador King goes to Pyongyang, the visit itself should not be seen as an indication that Washington has already made a decision on aid.

South Korea has held firm to a decision not to resume large-scale food aid to Pyongyang any time soon. But it has continued to allow charity groups to send small amounts of emergency assistance for North Korean children.

North Korea, in recent months, has made urgent appeals for substantial food aid.

United Nations’ agencies and private organizations express concern about nutrition in the North, saying the situation is at its worst since the famine of the mid-1990s. But some U.S. and South Korean-based analysts are skeptical. They say there is no proof of severe malnutrition. They add North Korea may be attempting to hoard food for next year’s celebration marking the 100th anniversary of the birth of the country’s late founder, Kim Il Sung.

Support for providing such aid dwindled in Seoul and Washington following last year’s sinking of a South Korean warship in the Yellow Sea. An international investigation concluded the vessel was struck by a North Korean torpedo.

There was a further chill following the fatal shelling of a South Korean island. North Korea said it fired on Yeonpyeong island because of a provocative South Korean military exercise near disputed waters on the frontier island.

Seoul and Washington are also discussing a Chinese request to re-engage Pyongyang diplomatically for talks about its nuclear weapons development.

Talks involving the two Koreas, the United States, China, Japan and Russia on compensating Pyongyang for nuclear disarmament have not been held since 2008. The following year North Korea carried out a second nuclear test. That resulted in tougher U.N. sanctions against Pyongyang.

Neither the United States nor South Korea has official ties with North Korea.