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US Sees Progress in North Korea Food Aid Talks

Special envoy for North Korean human rights issues, Robert King, left, and senior USAID official Jon Brause, right, return to their hotel after a day of meetings with North Korean officials in Beijing, China, March 7, 2012.

A top U.S. envoy say progress was made in negotiations with North Korean officials on details of a plan to supply 240,000 tons of U.S. food aid to the communist nation.

Robert King, the special envoy for human rights in North Korea, spoke to reporters after Wednesday's talks in Beijing.

"We've discussed a number of the issues," said King. "We've made progress, we still have issues to resolve, and we'll be meeting tomorrow to deal with those issues.''

The talks could clear the way for the first U.S. food assistance to North Korea in three years. Last week, Washington announced an agreement under which North Korea agreed to freeze its nuclear and missile tests, and allow the return of United Nations nuclear inspectors, in return for food aid.

Washington suspended its aid in 2009 after Pyongyang expelled U.S. food monitors amid concerns the food was being diverted to North Korea's military or political elite.

David Austin, North Korea program director with Mercy Corps - a private U.S. relief group that has worked with Washington to distribute and monitor food aid in North Korea - told VOA the first round of assistance will go a long way because it targets the most vulnerable.

A representative for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), which is working on malnutrition and other health problems in North Korea, has also welcomed the prospect of more aid saying that it could complement UNICEF efforts in 25 of North Korea’s 209 counties.

North Korea has suffered from widespread hunger due to floods and poor harvests. A major famine in the 1990s is believed to have killed hundreds of thousands, if not a million North Koreans.

Despite its political differences with North Korea, the United States has been the biggest single contributor of food aid to the communist state since the famine.

Some information for this report was provided by AP, AFP and Reuters.