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Wednesday, February 9, 2011

N. Korea asks US 'to restore food aid'

SEOUL — North Korea has asked the United States to resume food aid suspended two years ago and pledged to allow international monitors to oversee its distribution to the public, a report said Wednesday.

South Korea's JoongAng Ilbo newspaper said Han Sang-Ryol, Pyongyang's deputy ambassador to the United Nations, made the request on January 14 at a meeting with Robert King, the US special envoy on human rights in North Korea.

Han told King in New York that the North was willing to allow monitoring of the food aid "as much as the US wants", it quoted a diplomatic source in Washington as saying.

King, who is visiting South Korea this week, said in a statement through the US embassy that he was aware of the report but "we do not normally discuss meetings with other governments".

US food aid was suspended in March 2009 after the North rejected a proposal to increase the number of Korean-speaking monitors, whose role was to ensure aid reached the general public and was not diverted to the military or the regime.

But Washington does not believe Pyongyang has met its conditions, the source told JoongAng, adding that even if it did, the resumption of shipments would take time because of congressional procedures.

King, in an interview with Yonhap news agency Wednesday, did not refer to the JoongAng report. No decision has been made on resuming food aid to North Korea, he was quoted as saying.

US policy is to base humanitarian assistance on need "and no political consideration should be involved", King said.

Its other principles were to balance demands and requests since resources are limited, and to ensure transparency in distribution.

The North suffered a famine in the 1990s which killed hundreds of thousands and has since relied on overseas aid to help feed its people.

But donations have dwindled amid international concern over its missile and nuclear programmes.

South Korea used to ship 400,000 tons of rice a year plus 300,000 tons of fertiliser to its neighbour.

The shipments ended in 2008 as relations worsened under a new conservative government in Seoul, which linked major assistance to nuclear disarmament.

Aid groups have warned that the North's chronic food shortages would worsen this year.

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