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US team to visit N.Korea to assess its food needs

A U.S. team, including the U.S. special envoy for North Korean human rights issues Robert King, will visit North Korea May 24-28 to assess the food needs of the isolated, impoverished nation.
/ Source: Reuters

The U.S. special envoy for North Korean human rights will lead a team to North Korea next week to assess the food needs of the isolated, impoverished nation, the U.S. State Department said Friday.

Ambassador Robert King's May 24-28 trip will mark the first official U.S. visit to Pyongyang since 2009 and comes amid signs the United States may be looking to revive multilateral talks on North Korea's nuclear program after a hiatus of more than two years.

South Korea, the United States' close ally, views its neighbor's pleas for food aid with suspicion and both Seoul and Washington say Pyongyang does not appear to be serious about its push to restart aid-for-disarmament talks.

The State Department said King and a senior official from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) would lead a five-person delegation to North Korea, where they will both meet officials in Pyongyang and conduct a food needs assessment by traveling outside the capital.

"We are assured that they will have the proper access," State Department spokesman Mark Toner told a news briefing. "That's obviously a big concern and one of the reasons why, frankly, we've waited this long to get a team in there."

The United States has come under mounting pressure to resume food aid to North Korea after a U.N. report said earlier this year that more than 6 million people urgently need help in the diplomatically isolated country.

Critics of aid say the North has siphoned off the food in the past to feed its million-strong army, and South Korea says the North's food stocks are at the same levels as last year.

Officials in Seoul also accuse North Korea of trying to hoard food ahead of a third nuclear test, which would likely provoke a further tightening of international sanctions.

Toner said that the U.S. special representative for North Korea policy Stephen Bosworth and discussed King's trip with officials in Seoul this week, and stressed that it did not mean a resumption of U.S. food aid was imminent.

"We need a thorough needs assessment first and foremost, and that's this element of it, and then adequate program management, monitoring, and access once the provisions are in place," Toner said.

"When the team gets back they'll assess what they found and make a decision based on that," Toner said, saying it was possible the food assessment experts would stay in North Korea beyond King's scheduled May 28 departure.

"Obviously part of this involves coordinating with our other partners both in the donor community but also the Republic of (South) Korea."

Toner said King was expected to raise broader human rights issues with North Korean officials, as well as the case of an American citizen detained in North Korea since last November on charges of doing missionary work.

Washington suspended food supplies to the North in 2008 over a monitoring dispute and has said it will only resume aid with Seoul's agreement.

The U.S. visits to both Seoul and Pyongyang come amid a flurry of diplomatic activity over the next steps on the Korean Peninsula and prospects for resumed talks on ending North Korea's nuclear programs, which Washington sees as a direct threat to allies South Korea and Japan.

South Korean media reported that North Korean leader Kim Jong-il on Friday made a secret trip to China -- his only major external ally. The reports were unconfirmed, but if true would mark Kim's third trip to China in the last 12 months.

The so-called six-party talks between the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the United States have been on hold since 2009 after Pyongyang walked out of the process after a new round of U.N. sanctions.

North Korea had agreed in 2005 to abandon its nuclear programs in return for aid, but that deal collapsed and the North subsequently conducted two nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009. It is also blamed for two deadly attacks on the South last year.