The United States Friday said it is donating 50,000 metric tons of food to North Korea in response to an appeal by the U.N.'s World Food Program. U.S. officials say the decision is unrelated to ongoing talks on North Korea's nuclear program.

Though it has major political differences with Pyongyang, the United States has long been the biggest single contributor of food aid to the impoverished communist state.

The announcement of the new 50,000 ton commitment came from State Department Spokesman Richard Boucher, who said it was in response to an appeal by the World Food Program, which says North Korea will need 480,000 tons of international food aid for this calendar year.

At a news briefing, Mr. Boucher said the administration decision came despite concerns about North Korean policies and despite questions about food-distribution practices in that country that have not been fully resolved.

The spokesman also said there was no connection to efforts to negotiate an end to the North Korean nuclear program in six-party talks hosted by China. But he said if the gesture leads Pyongyang to be more forthcoming in the negotiations, then all the better:

"It's not really in any way linked to the six-party talks. It's always been for us a humanitarian issue. We've been able to provide this kind of assistance to the North Korean people when we had these talks, and didn't have these talks. It's our desire to help the North Korean people. If that, how can I say it, if that impresses the North Koreans and makes them adopt a more favorable attitude, then that's good. But our intention is to help the people and not try to affect the talks."

The United States last year gave North Korea 100,000 tons of food aid, most of it coming in an allotment announced at the end of the year, and held up by U.S. concerns that Pyongyang was impeding efforts to assure that the aid was going to the most needy.

Mr. Boucher said U.S. officials have been told by the World Food Program that North Korea has allowed it to make an increased number of monitoring visits to food distribution sites in the last six months, and to conduct more frequent evaluations of family food-security conditions.

However, he said North Korea "still falls short" of meeting international standards for access by humanitarian agencies that are accepted by other food-aid recipients.

He said the matter would be discussed further with North Korea, the World Food Program and other donor nations.

The spokesman said another U.S. food pledge is possible later this year and that a decision will be based on demonstrated needs in North Korea, competing needs elsewhere, and monitoring considerations.