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2008/05/22 10:59 KST


N. Korean Media Make Swift Report on U.S. Food Aid Announcement

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- In an unusual manner, North Korea made a swift report on the U.S. announcement last week that it will resume food aid to the impoverished country next month.

   The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) announced on May 16 it is resuming the provision of some 500,000 tons of aid to North Korea that is now facing severe food shortage, after reaching an agreement for improved monitoring and access to ensure the assistance reaches the intended recipients.

   North Korea said on May 17 the decision by the U.S. government will help ease its food shortage "to a certain extent." The remark, carried by the North's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), was seen as unusual and swift because it came only about 12 hours after the U.S. administration announced that it would begin sending the aid from June through international aid agencies.

   "The United States intends to provide the DPRK (North Korea) with 500,000 metric tons in food commodities over the course of a 12-month program beginning in June 2008, with the World Food Program (WFP) to distribute approximately 400,000 tons and U.S. NGOs approximately 100,000 tons," USAID said in a statement.

   South Korea welcomed the U.S. decision for food aid to the North despite recent chilly relations between the divided Koreas since the inauguration of the Lee Myung-bak administration in February. South Korea's Foreign Ministry formally welcomed the decision by saying the food aid will help alleviate the North's food shortage.

   Under the U.S. decision, an experts' meeting will be held in Pyongyang soon to work out operational matters and begin detailed implementation of the aid program, the agency said. The U.S. had suspended assistance to North Korea after Pyongyang in 2005 demanded the WFP cut back its presence in the country, claiming it had a bumper crop and enough donations to meet its needs.

   Pyongyang had relied on international handouts for nearly a decade before then. Monitoring of distribution always posed a problem in arranging a U.S. aid program in the North, and the WFP's withdrawal virtually took away even the basic means of monitoring. In recent months, the North admitted it was facing another food shortage crisis, prompting international groups to press for immediate relief actions.

   The North's news agency said the U.S. aid will "contribute to promoting the understanding and confidence between the peoples of the two countries." In March, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization said North Korea was about 2 million metric tons short of the minimum amount it needs until this year's fall harvest. Last year, floods ravaged some 11 percent of the North's crop fields.

   North Korea also hinted that it had accepted a proposal by the U.S. on how to monitor the delivery of food to the most needy people, saying it "is ready to provide all technical conditions necessary for the food delivery." The USAID said North Korea "agreed on terms for a substantial improvement in monitoring and access in order to allow for confirmation of receipt by the intended recipients."
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the agreed monitoring mechanisms were "perhaps the most rigorous regime" so far seen in the North.

   The food aid will come from the Bill Emerson Humanitarian Trust, with the mix of commodities and delivery schedules to be negotiated in coming weeks. Representatives from the WFP and the NGO will be able to travel to affected areas that will be receiving the food aid, McCormack said. The first shipment is expected next month, in light of the urgency of North Korea's food shortfall, USAID said.

   "This program has developed through close coordination and extensive consultation with experts in the South Korean government," it added. Inter-Korean dialogue has come to a halt amid North Korea's criticism of President Lee, who vowed to link cross-border economic assistance and cooperation with progress in efforts to dismantle Pyongyang's nuclear program.

   The conservative Lee administration took on a more strict stance in providing aid to the North, saying it will seek more reciprocity from Pyongyang. The North has since lashed out at Seoul and has yet to ask for help from South Korea.

   The U.S. government's decision comes amid signs of rapid progress in international efforts to persuade North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program. North Korea handed over some 18,000 pages of documents on its nuclear programs to the U.S earlier this month.

   "We don't see any connection between this," McCormack said, restating Washington's long-held position that it does not use food as a weapon, and that humanitarian issues are separate from political ones.

   Regarding the move by Washington to help Pyongyang and Seoul's response, some government insiders speculated that the Lee administration may ease its stance to reflect outside developments and public opinion, especially if conditions in the communist country decline rapidly. From 2001-2004, Seoul sent 100,000 tons of corn every year to the North through the WFP, while last year it sent 32,000 tons of beans and corn via the international food program.