Image: North Korean farmers
David Guttenfelder  /  AP
North Korean farmers pass fields at a collective farm near the town of Sariwon, North Korea, on Oct. 25. In a landmark shift after three years of tensions, the United States is poised to announce in the coming days its first significant donation of food aid to North Korea -- a small but symbolic offer that is expected to pave the way for long-stalled discussions on dismantling Pyongyang's nuclear program.
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updated 12/18/2011 10:01:40 AM ET 2011-12-18T15:01:40

The United States is poised to announce a significant donation of food aid to North Korea this week, the first concrete accomplishment after months of behind-the-scenes diplomatic contacts between the two wartime enemies. An agreement by North Korea to suspend its controversial uranium enrichment program will likely follow within days.

A broad outline of the emerging agreement has been made known to The Associated Press by people close to the negotiations.

Discussions have been taking place since summer in New York, Geneva and Beijing. They have already yielded agreements by North Korea to suspend nuclear and ballistic missile testing, readmit international nuclear inspectors expelled in 2009, and resume a dialogue between North Korea and South Korea, according to the people, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of sensitivity of the negotiations.

The announcement of the food aid, expected to take place as early as Monday in Washington, not only would be welcome news for North Korea, but also pave the way for another crucial U.S.-North Korea meeting in Beijing on Thursday. That meeting in turn could lead within weeks to the resumption of nuclear disarmament talks that would also include China, Japan, Russia and South Korea.

Six-party talks
The so-called six-party talks were last held three years ago, and resuming them would amount to a foreign policy coup for the Obama administration.

Suspension of uranium enrichment by North Korea had been a key demand from both the U.S. and South Korea of the North, which has tested two atomic devices in the past five years.

The U.S. would provide 240,000 tons of high-protein biscuits and vitamins — 20,000 tons a month for a year — but not much-wanted rice, according to reports in the South Korean media. It would be the first food aid from the U.S. in nearly three years.

Negotiators have sought for two decades to convince North Korea to dismantle its plutonium-producing nuclear reactor at Yongbyon, which the government insists exists to generate much-needed power. But plutonium, when enriched, can be used to make atomic bombs, and North Korea also stands by its right to develop missiles to defend itself against the nuclear-armed United States.

In 2009, North Korea tested a missile capable of reaching U.S. shores, earning widespread condemnation and strengthened U.N. sanctions. An incensed North Korea, which insisted the rocket launch was designed to send a satellite into space, walked away from ongoing nuclear disarmament talks in protest.

In the weeks that followed, North Korea tested a nuclear device and announced it would begin enriching uranium, which would give it a second way to make atomic weapons.

"North Korea's disclosure of a uranium enrichment program was bait" for negotiations and aid, said Jeung Young-tae, an analyst with the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul. "And the United States grabbed that bait."

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With little arable land and outdated agricultural practices, North Korea has long struggled to feed its people. Flooding and a harsh winter further destroyed crops. The World Food Program issued a plea earlier this year for $218 million in humanitarian help to feed the most vulnerable.

As donations trickled in, Washington deliberated for months on whether to contribute food aid.

Then, in July, U.S. and North Korean negotiators met in New York, and again in Geneva in November. Two days of discussion on food aid last week in Beijing led up to this week's expected announcement of a food-aid package.

State of war
This diplomatic dance has unfolded as North Korea prepares for two milestone events for its citizens: the 100th anniversary of the April 1912 birth of President Kim Il Sung, who is officially regarded as the nation's "eternal president" long after his death, and a movement to prepare Kim Jong Un, son of current leader Kim Jong Il, to become the next ruler.

A peace treaty with the U.S. to formally end the Korean War and ensure stability on the Korean peninsula has remained a key goal for the North Korean leadership. The war that erupted in 1950 was suspended with an armistice in 1953, but tensions on the Korean peninsula have remained high ever since.

A technical state of war remains, and the U.S. maintains a garrison of 28,500 troops in South Korea to protect its ally against aggression.

More recently, the deadly March 2010 sinking of a South Korean warship and a November 2010 artillery attack on a front-line South Korean island populated by civilians only deepened tensions between North Korea and the West.

Besides a food aid deal, another tangible sign of diplomatic progress has been North Korea's recent willingness to discuss letting U.S. military officials into North Korea to recover remains of U.S. servicemen killed — a project suspended by Washington in 2005. North Korea has agreed to allow a first U.S. team into the country in the spring, officials said.

But overlying all of this is a desire by the U.S. and its allies to restart nuclear disarmament negotiations.

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Friday that there was no announcement yet on food aid or further U.S. talks with North Korea.

However, those with knowledge of the negotiations told the AP an announcement was expected as soon as Monday, and would include a provision for better monitoring of food distribution to allay concerns that aid meant for the most needy is diverted to North Korea's powerful military.

Nuland, who has said the government wants to ensure the food goes to the needy, "not to the regime, and not to go locked up in storehouses," has confirmed that the food in question is better characterized as "nutritional assistance."

"When you think about food, you think about sacks of rice, cans of food, things that might easily be diverted to the wrong purpose," she said Thursday.

"When you talk about nutritional assistance, it could be that, but it could also be things like vitamin supplements to populations in need, like women and children; it could be high protein biscuits or other things." The concern, she said, is that items intended for starving women and children "not find themselves on some leader's banquet table."

___

Associated Press writer Hyung-jin Kim in Seoul, South Korea, contributed to this report. Follow Jean H. Lee, AP's Korea bureau chief, on Twitter at twitter.com/newsjean.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Journey into North Korea

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  1. Central Pyongyang, capital of North Korea, is seen at dusk on April 12, 2011. North Korea is struggling with financial sanctions and international ostracization over its nuclear program. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A city tram carries passengers in Pyongyang on April 15. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. A girl plays the piano inside the Changgwang Elementary School in Pyongyang on March 9. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Stuffed animals are on display at Changgwang Elementary School in Pyongyang on March 9. They're used in biology classes. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Men read a newspaper on public display inside a subway station in Pyongyang on March 10. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. A North Korean traffic police officer stands along a street in central Pyongyang on April 13. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Workers carry painted doors along a road in Mangyongdae on April 13. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. The scene on April 17 south of Pyongyang along the highway leading to the southern city of Kaesong, North Korea. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. People pay their respects at a monument to Kim Il Sung at Mansu Hill in Pyongyang on April 14 -- the eve of the late president's birthday. In North Korea, April 15 is known as "The Day of the Sun" in honor of the former guerrilla fighter who founded North Korea in 1948. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. A member of a marching band has her photo taken with a woman and a boy at an event marking the birthday of Kim Il Sung at a park in Pyongyang on April 15. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Women perform a dance routine with badminton rackets at an April 15 event to mark the birthday of Kim Il Sung at a park in Pyongyang. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Two female North Korean soldiers hold hands as they tour the birthplace of Kim Il Sung at Mangyongdae on April 13. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. A photo taken through a bus window shows a North Korean traffic police woman standing along a street in Pyongyang on April 15. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. A statue known as the Monument to the Three Charters for National Reunification, which symbolizes the hope for eventual reunification of the two Koreas, arches over a highway at the edge of Pyongyang on April 18. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Men walk along a street in Pyongyang as the sun sets April 14. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. A decorated sheet covers a bed inside the Koryo Hotel in Pyongyang on March 8. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. A photograph of Kim Il Sung hangs on a wall next to a light made from a grenade casing on March 9 inside an exhibit at the war museum in Pyongyang. The exhibit is made to look like underground bunkers used during the resistance against the Japanese occupation. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. People react on a ride at an amusement park in Pyongyang on April 16. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. A multi-lane highway is empty of vehicles on April 21 near Pyongyang. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. People walk and use bicycles to cross a railroad bridge over a riverbed north of Pyongyang on April 19. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Concert-goers sit inside an auditorium as they wait for a classical music performance to begin in Pyongyang on March 10. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. A car drives along a street at night in central Pyongyang on April 12. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Children look through a subway car window in Pyongyang on March 10. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. A woman sits at a small table selling snacks on the roadside near Nampho on April 21. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Plates of food sit on a customer's table at a fast food restaurant inside an amusement park in Pyongyang on April 16. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Men operate a manual rail car on tracks running along the sea near Nampho on April 21. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Men ride bicycles at the end of a work day in Pyongyang on April 18. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Flowers known in North Korea as "Kimilsungia" are displayed next to a small replica of the Kim Il Sung mausoleum at a flower exhibition in Pyongyang on April 13. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. A woman looks at monkeys behind a glass enclosure at the central zoo in Pyongyang on April 22. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. A European tourist photographs a North Korean woman working at the Pyongyang airport as a North Korean Air Koryo flight arrives from Beijing on April 12. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. A children's choir performs in Pyongyang on April 14. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. Hikers climb a trail along Mount Myohyang on April 20. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. Hikers rest at a small pagoda along a trail on Mount Myohyang on April 20. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  34. North Korean flight attendants on a video screen bow at the end of the security demonstration before takeoff on an Air Koryo flight from Beijing to Pyongyang on March 8. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  35. Rows of portable stereos sit on desks inside a music library room at the Grand People's Study House in Pyongyang on March 9. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  36. A professional photographer takes a souvenir picture for visitors to the birthplace of Kim Il Sung at Mangyongdae on April 13. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  37. Two North Korean soldiers walk along a road and past a small village near the demilitarized zone that separates the two Koreas outside of Kaesong, North Korea, on April 17. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  38. A guard is reflected in a window at the entrance to a hall where organizers held an exhibition of the flowers known in North Korea as "Kimjongilia" and "Kimilsungia" in Pyongyang on April 13. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  39. A shadow of the 560-foot-tall Juche Tower is cast over the Taedong River in Pyongyang on March 9. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  40. People stroll along the Taedong River in Pyongyang on April 13. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  41. A waitress is reflected in a mirror inside a hotel restaurant in Mount Myohyang on April 19. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  42. A bowl of traditional North Korean cold noodles, known as naengmyeon, sits on a restaurant table in Pyongyang on March 10. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  43. North Korean workers rebuild the roof of a structure at the Pohyon Temple at the foot of Mount Myohyang on April 19. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  44. On April 21, a girl carries a flower through a memorial cemetery in Pyongyang for men and women who died fighting against the Japanese occupation. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  45. An illustration of a building hangs in front of the construction project in progress in Pyongyang on April 13. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  46. Families have their photographs taken in front of the Kumsusan Memorial Palace in Pyongyang on April 15. The palace, which was the official residence of Kim Il Sung until his death in 1994, is now a mausoleum where his embalmed body lies in state. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  47. A video shows the liftoff of the North Korean Unha-2 rocket to launch the Kwangmyongsong-2 satellite into space on a screen inside a hall at the Three Revolution Exhibition in Pyongyang. North Korea called the launch, which took place on April 5, 2009, a successful bid to put a communications satellite into space. However, the U.S. and South Korea called it cover for a test of long-range missile technology and accused Pyongyang of violating U.N. resolutions prohibiting North Korea from developing its nuclear and missile technologies. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  48. A U.S. flag and weapons sit inside a glass display case at the war museum in Pyongyang on March 9. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  49. Two North Korean soldiers smoke cigarettes as a pedestrian passes in Pyongyang on April 22. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  50. A shadow is cast across a parking lot as a man walks by a row of imported cars in central Pyongyang on April 12. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  51. Students swim and play on a water slide at a pool facility at Kim Il Sung University in Pyongyang on April 13. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  52. A girl stands on floral-print carpet inside the Pyongyang Children's Palace in Pyongyang on April 14. The large facility is used for teaching performance arts, fine arts and sports as extracurricular classes. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Image:
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    Above: Slideshow (53) Journey into North Korea
  2. Image:
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    Slideshow (22) North Korea in Autumn

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