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US Officials Conducting Food Assessment in North Korea

In this Tuesday, May 24, 2011 photo released by Korean Central News Agency via Korea News Service in Tokyo, Amb. Robert King, center, a U.S. special envoy for North Korean human rights issue, and his party arrive at Pyongyang airport in North Korea.

An American team, led by a U.S. ambassador, has arrived in Pyongyang to assess the food situation in North Korea.

Pyongyang is allowing, for the first time, an American envoy whose portfolio is the North Korean human rights issue, to visit the country.

Ambassador Robert King is leading a five-person team on a trip that is mainly to evaluate whether the United States should resume giving food to the impoverished communist state.

The ambassador is scheduled to be there through Saturday, but U.S. officials say some team members may stay longer to assess the situation in remote parts of the country.

North Korean diplomats, in recent months, have made urgent appeals for food. The World Food Program of the United Nations says more than six million North Koreans are short of food.

Daniel Pinkston, the senior analyst in Seoul for the International Crisis Group, says there is little doubt that North Korea cannot feed its own people.

“The debate right now is the severity and if, in fact, this year is worse or significantly worse than last year or previous years," he said. "I think that's what the assessment team will try to find out. They'll try to confirm some of the fact-finding and the assessment of the WFP team. And then, of course, it will be a political decision on how to go forward.”

In both the United States and South Korea there is a divide about the ramifications of providing such aid to the reclusive communist country.

Those favoring food aid say it could encourage an opening of the country or prompt concessions from Pyongyang on nuclear or humanitarian issues. Those opposed contend that denying the assistance to such a repressive country could help hasten the government's collapse.

ICG analyst Pinkston doubts either option would prove to be a catalyst.

“I don’t think food aid, withholding it or providing it, is really going to change the situation. This really has no traction or leverage on the political polices in Pyongyang,” he said.

Four prominent U.S. senators, in a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, are calling for a cautious approach and say they have questions about the conclusion of the World Food Program report. The politicians say Pyongyang may be using food aid as a political weapon and any resumption of American assistance should only come after consultations with Washington’s allies in Seoul and Tokyo.

U.S. food aid to North Korea was suspended more than two years ago after Pyongyang would not allow an increase in the number of Korean-speaking monitors. They were meant to ensure the food was reaching those most in need rather than being diverted to the military or the elite.

South Korea has severely restricted aid to the North for the past year. That was prompted by the sinking of a South Korean warship in the Yellow Sea, which Washington, Seoul and others concluded was caused by a North Korean torpedo.

A spokesman at South Korea’s foreign ministry, Cho Byung-je, says Seoul has not changed its stance about resuming food aid to Pyongyang.

Cho says an accurate gauge of the actual consumption of food in North Korea is needed, as well as making sure the food gets delivered to where it is needed.

South Korea stopped its annual aid of 400,000 tons of rice in 2008 after a conservative government came into office here. But it has allowed civic groups to send smaller quantities of humanitarian and medical assistance

Some leaders of South Korean civic and religious groups are calling for the government to give permission for that aid to be expanded.