updated 5/20/2005 12:32:17 PM ET 2005-05-20T16:32:17

The Bush administration is trying to decide whether to provide food assistance to North Korea this year, a U.S. official said Friday.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the decision is unrelated to a standoff between the United States and North Korea over the Asian country’s nuclear weapons program. Those talks have been sidetracked for nearly a year and there is no sign of a breakthrough.

The official said humanitarian assistance is not used as a political weapon by the Bush administration.

Last year, a decision on providing food to hungry North Korea was not made until July, the official said. Ultimately, 50,000 metric tons of American food was dispatched.

Andrew Natsios, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, has said three criteria determine food aid: a demonstrated need, competing needs elsewhere and the ability of humanitarian groups to deliver the food to people in need.

The guidelines still apply to North Korea as well as other countries, the official told The Associated Press.

Seoul's offer
South Korea, meanwhile, has offered to start providing 200,000 tons of fertilizer to the North starting Saturday. That move is designed to help North Korea overcome its food shortages.

The State Department endorsed the offer. “We’ve always seen that as a humanitarian issue and have not opposed it,” spokesman Richard Boucher said Thursday.

The International Crisis Group, a private, not-for-profit organization, said in a 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.

The Wall Street Journal reported Friday that the U.S. has halted food aid to North Korea so far this year and may not provide any in 2005.

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