The United States will provide more than 50,000 tons of food to North Korea in what the Bush administration says is a humanitarian decision unrelated to efforts to get Pyongyang to end its nuclear weapons program.
The kind of food provided is to be determined in consultation with the World Food Program, said State Department spokesman Adam Ereli. He also said seeds and small tools might be provided, as well.
U.S. efforts to meet the needs of the North Korean people and to halt the weapons program are not linked, Ereli said Wednesday in announcing the program. "Our decisions are made on humanitarian considerations solely," he said.
The administration made a similar decision to provide about 55,000 tons of food assistance last July. In 2003, the administration donated 100,000 metric tons. All of these donations were made as the United States and North Korea jostled over the weapons issue, as they still do.
North Korea indicated earlier this month that it was ready to resume talks with the United States and four other countries — Russia, China, Japan and South Korea — but no date has been set.
At the White House, press secretary Scott McClellan said: "We've been a big supplier of food to the North Korean people and the president has said that he does not believe that food should be used as a diplomatic weapon."
"We have always had concerns, though, that that food is getting to the people who need it: the people who are starving, the people who are hungry," McClellan added. "We want to make sure there are assurances that that food is going to those who need it, not to the government and not to the military in North Korea."
In a statement issued later, the State Department said the World Food Program "has informed us that it is attempting to implement a new food monitoring system to reduce the risk of diversion."
Two private U.S. experts on North Korea said this week that leader Kim Jong Il had sent a message to President Bush in November 2002 saying the United States and North Korea "should be able to resolve the nuclear issue in compliance with the demands of the new century."
"If the United States makes a bold decision, we will respond accordingly," Kim said in a written personal message to Mr. Bush that he sent through Donald Gregg and Don Oberdorfer. Gregg is a former U.S. ambassador to South Korea and key aide to Mr. Bush's father. Oberdorfer is a Korea expert at the School of Advanced International Studies in Washington.
Gregg and Oberdorfer wrote about their trip to Pyongyang in an opinion piece in Wednesday's Washington Post.
The message appeared to reflect a persistent North Korean demand for direct talks with the United States, in preference to the six-party format.
The administration has offered assurances U.S. and North Korean diplomats could confer against the six-nation backdrop. And yet, with these and other signs of a breakthrough in the making, no date or place for negotiations has been announced.
Two months ago, faced with a published report that the administration had decided to halt food aid to North Korea, the State Department said the North's needs were being weighed against hunger in other countries.
"We don't calibrate or decide on food assistance based on political factors," said Richard Boucher, the department's spokesman at the time.
A metric ton, which weighs 2,205 pounds, is a commonly used measure outside the United States.
South Korea, meanwhile, has begun providing 200,000 tons of fertilizer to North Korea in a move designed to help overcome food shortages.
The International Crisis Group, a private organization, said in a recent report that North Korea was undergoing the most profound economic change in its 57-year history as a state.
Semiprivate markets, shops and small businesses are spreading through the country, the report said. "The international community has an opportunity to increase the chances that North Korea will make a successful transition from a Stalinist command economy to one that is more market-driven," it said.