US officials in North Korea to discuss food aid


The interagency delegation of about five people will be in Pyongyang for an undetermined amount of time trying to reach agreement with the Stalinist state over how to guarantee that U.S.

food can be distributed to North Koreans most in need, the department said.

"We are concerned about the needs of the North Korean people and have had some discussions with the (government) on food assistance and management of a food aid program," said Kurtis Cooper, a department spokesman.

He said the North Korea was facing significant food shortages due to floods last year and other factors. The U.N. World Food program said last month that food prices at markets have doubled while state rations were dwindling.

Cooper said the U.S.-North Korean discussions were continuing but so far remain inconclusive.

"We have no decision to announce beyond our statement of Aug.

31, 2007, in which we indicated a willingness to provide significant humanitarian assistance based on three existing criteria: the level of need, availability of supplies in view of other needs worldwide and the ability to ensure that aid is reliably reaching the people in need," he said.

Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte was scheduled to leave Washington on Tuesday for talks with officials in Seoul, Tokyo and Beijing that were expected to include discussions about North Korea.

A kilogram (2.2 pounds) of rice in Pyongyang now costs about a third of a typical worker's monthly income of about $2, the U.N.

food agency said.

In another blow to the food situation, direct aid from North Korea's two top donors - China and South Korea - is also expected to decline this year.

Due to rising food prices, China has restricted its exports and is not expected to send as much to its communist ally as in the past, the agency said.

South Korea has a new conservative president, Lee Myung-bak, who has said he expects North Korea to reciprocate for aid, a change from the previous decade of liberal South Korean governments. The new policy has angered Pyongyang, which has claimed it does not need Seoul's help.

Since the 1990s North Korea has suffered regular food shortages caused by natural disasters, mismanagement and the loss of the country's Soviet benefactor. As many as 2 million people are believed to have died from famine.

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