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(Yonhap Interview) U.S. attaches no political strings to humanitarian aid: envoy
By Lee Haye-ah and Chang Jae-soon
SEOUL, Feb. 9 (Yonhap) -- The United States attaches no political strings to humanitarian assistance, Washington's special envoy for North Korean human rights issues said Wednesday amid speculation as to whether the U.S. would accept Pyongyang's apparent request for food aid.

   That is one of the three principles the U.S. sticks to in providing humanitarian aid, Robert King said. His remarks came amid media speculation about the possibility of Washington resuming food aid to the impoverished North, though King said no decision has been made.

   "The United States policy is that when we provide assistance, humanitarian assistance, it is based on need and no political consideration should be involved. That's the first condition," King said in an exclusive interview with Yonhap News Agency in Seoul.

   The two other principles are to balance demands and requests as resources are limited, and to ensure transparency in aid distribution "to be certain that aid we provide goes to those who are most vulnerable, those who are most in need," King said, adding that any aid request should meet those criteria.

   King's visit to South Korea followed reports that North Korea recently asked the U.S. to send food aid and that Washington reviewed the request positively. Officials in Washington, including Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell, have since said the U.S. has no immediate plans to provide food to the destitute nation.

   Officials in Seoul said that it appears to be true that the North has asked for food aid.

   King, who arrived in Seoul on Sunday for a six-day trip, said in the interview that he met with South Korean officials and discussed "a whole range of human rights issues," including the food situation in North Korea.

   On Tuesday, the envoy met with South Korea's chief nuclear envoy, Wi Sung-lac, and other officials from the foreign and unification ministries. Foreign ministry officials said that King and relevant officials exchanged views on the North's chronic food shortages, but that aid resumption was not part of the discussions.

Robert King, U.S. special envoy for North Korean human rights issues. (Yonhap)

South Korea apparently holds negative views in relation to aid resumption to the North because it could undercut international pressure on Pyongyang to give up its nuclear programs and take responsibility for last year's attacks on the South -- the November shelling of the border island of Yeonpyeong and the March sinking of the warship Cheonan.

   North Korea has relied on outside assistance to feed its hunger-stricken 24 million population since natural disasters and mismanagement devastated its economy in the mid-1990s. The country's food situation is believed to have worsened in recent years after the South cut off unconditional aid.

   Deepening Pyongyang's economic woes were tougher sanctions that the United Nations, South Korea, the U.S. and other nations imposed on the communist nation for its nuclear tests and military provocations, including last year's attacks on the South.

   But North Korea has recently been stepping up peace overtures toward the South, a possible sign of difficulty with its economic situation. South Korean officials have said that they consider Pyongyang's moves as part of a ploy to win economic aid.

   King said that the U.S. "is concerned about the welfare of the North Korean people" and is following "closely the humanitarian situation there," though he said it is frustrating that it is difficult to get information about the situation in the North because it is such a closed nation.

   North Korea has long been labeled one of the worst human rights violators in the world. The communist regime of leader Kim Jong-il does not tolerate dissent, holds hundreds of thousands of people in political prison camps across the nation and keeps a tight control over outside information.

   Pyongyang has bristled at any talk of its human rights conditions, calling it a U.S.-led attempt to topple the regime.

   Calling the North's human rights situation "deplorable," King said that the totalitarian regime has "one of the worst human rights records" in any country.

   The envoy also said that human rights will be a "factor" that will affect U.S.-North Korea relations and that he hopes the matter will be discussed if six-party talks on the North's nuclear programs reopen. Still, he refused to call improvement in the North's human rights records a "precondition" for progress in Washington-Pyongyang ties.

   King praised Seoul for its efforts to help North Korean defectors restart their lives in the capitalist South, saying he was "very impressed" when he visited Hanawon, the resettlement center for defectors where they learn how to live in the South.

   The envoy also said that the U.S. will work together with China on the issue of defectors. Beijing, Pyongyang's last remaining major ally, has been accused of repatriating some North Korean defectors back to their communist homeland as it sees such North Koreans as economic migrants, not as refugees.

   King also called for greater exchanges with the North as a way of lessing Pyongyang's tight control over outside information.

   "One thing that is important in terms of breaking down the information monopoly is being able to have exchanges with North Koreans and I think it's important that we engage North Korea and have opportunities," he said.