updated 5/16/2008 1:18:30 PM ET 2008-05-16T17:18:30

The United States said Friday it has reached a deal with North Korea to provide 500,000 metric tons of food aid over the coming year to the closed-off communist nation.

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The Bush administration says the aid, set to start next month, is unrelated to its nuclear disarmament deal with Pyongyang, although both have involved an unusual intensity of U.S. diplomacy with a nation President Bush once included as part of a rhetorical "axis of evil."

The State Department announced the food agreement after weeks of talks over how the aid would be distributed. The United States wants assurances the food won't be diverted or used improperly by the government of Kim Jong Il.

"The two sides have agreed on terms for a substantial improvement in monitoring and access in order to allow for confirmation of receipt by the intended recipients," according to a statement from the U.S. Agency for International Development.

The U.S. said it does not know exactly how much the deal will cost, because prices will depend on such variables as the costs of food and shipping, both of which are rising fast.

Pyongyang "has been open in saying it faces a major shortage in food supplies," White House press secretary Dana Perino said earlier this week.

"The president thinks that the government is certainly diverting food to the military and not giving it to the people," she said. "But outside of politics, the president's heart hurts when he knows that people are starving, and especially because — especially for children, who are maybe trying to go to school."

The North's food situation has worsened this year due to last year's devastating floods that destroyed more than 11 percent of the country's crops.

The country has resorted to international assistance to feed its 23 million people since the mid-1990s due to natural disasters and mismanagement. The U.N. has warned that North Korea urgently needs outside aid to avert a worse humanitarian disaster.

South Korea's foreign minister said Thursday his government is also willing to talk with North Korea about food aid.

Relations between the two Koreas worsened after South Korea's new conservative government was inaugurated in February with a pledge to take a tougher line on the North, which subsequently said it would stop seeking help from the South, previously a key donor.

South Korean Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan said his country "intends to hold direct talks with North Korea if there is such an opportunity," according to his ministry. Yu did not elaborate.

However, ministry spokesman Moon Tae-young said the South Korean government will maintain its position that it will provide aid to North Korea only if the North requests it.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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