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U.S. Set to Resume Food Aid to N.Korea

Posted May. 19, 2008 07:55,   


The United States will send food aid to North Korea for the first time since 2005, having been the biggest food donor to the impoverished communist country in the 1990s.

Five hundred thousand tons of food will be shipped to North Korea over a year starting next month, the biggest annual volume since 1999.

U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack denied that the decision had anything to do with the breakthrough in the six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear program. “We`re doing this because America is a compassionate nation and the United States and the American people are people who reach out to those in need.”

The resumption of food aid, however, is more political than humanitarian since it is closely synchronized with the nuclear deals between Pyongyang and Washington. Many see the decision as compensation or an incentive for the six-party talks.

The United States had been the biggest donor of humanitarian food aid to the North in the 1990s, when the isolated country suffered its worst economic crisis.

Washington started aid shipments in 1996 through the World Food Program and other avenues. The first year saw a modest 19,500 tons but the figure peaked at 690,000 tons a year.

When relations between the two countries chilled over the nuclear issue, Pyongyang kicked out WFP staff in 2005 and conducted missile and nuclear tests the following year. U.S. food aid then stopped altogether.

When rumors said the food crisis in the North worsened last year, the two countries started talks on resuming food aid. Negotiations sped up after U.S. officials began visiting both Koreas in March.

The food aid has strong political implications. U.S. President George W. Bush, who wants to see substantial progress in North Korea’s denuclearization before his term ends, has used aid as leverage in dealing with Pyongyang.

“The U.S. in the past used humanitarian aid to persuade China to improve its human rights,” said Seo Jae-jin, director of North Korean studies at the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul. “The decision to resume food aid to North Korea is another example of using humanitarian aid as economic compensation for a political purpose -- the denuclearization of North Korea.”

Talks on the food aid were strictly connected to progress in the nuclear negotiations. When a breakthrough came in Switzerland on March 13, the United States confirmed that it was willing to send 500,000 tons of food to the North and started collecting information on food shortages there by sending a representative to South Korea.

The U.S. State Department made an official announcement of its food aid after its Korea Office chief Sung Kim crossed the inter-Korean border last week with 18,000 pages of documents on Pyongyang’s nuclear program.

Marcus Noland, a senior fellow at the Institute for International Economics, and Stephen Haggard, professor of International Studies at the University of California-San Diego, said in their co-authored book “Famine in North Korea” that Pyongyang in the 1990s diverted a significant amount of food aid to distribute to its elite or sell on the world market.

To silence skeptics, Washington and Pyongyang agreed on around 65 third-party monitors, the Washington Post reported Saturday. The daily said the North gave permission to the WFP to monitor at will and gain access to warehouses and other facilities.

This is a compromise from the initial U.S. position to give direct food aid and monitor on its own. During the negotiations, Washington agreed to involve the WFP and accepted Pyongyang’s demand that the monitors can be fluent in Korean but not be ethnically Korean.

“The monitoring is not very different from the past and won’t be enough to prevent the food from being diverted,” said Jeong Gwang-min, senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Strategy in Seoul. “It will be more honest to say the food aid is compensation for North Korea’s compliance with the six-party resolution.”

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