US would consider food aid request from N. Korea

WASHINGTON (AFP) - The United States would consider any new request from North Korea to resume food aid stalled since 2009, provided Pyongyang allowed US staff inside the isolated country to monitor distribution.

"Our policy in providing humanitarian assistance is based on conditions of need," US ambassador Robert King, special envoy for North Korean human rights, told journalists on Monday.

"If there were a request for assistance it's something I'm sure that we would look at," Mr King said.

But any such requests would have to be balanced against demands from other countries as well as US "ability to monitor the delivery of that assistance."

US officials would also need to be allowed into the country to make their own assessment, as well as to monitor distribution, he added, speaking amid heightened tensions with the North which has unleashed a series of bellicose threats in recent weeks.

The United States last provided food aid to North Korea from late 2008 to March 2009. Some 170,000 tonnes out of an expected 500,000 tonnes of food aid was delivered, until Pyongyang expelled US workers monitoring the distribution.

Washington had not been able to monitor where some 22,000 tonnes of food had gone, Mr King said. "They ended it. They said we're through." The US had been planning to resume the aid in April 2012, when Washington agreed to provide 240,000 metric tons of nutritional assistance to the communist state, in return for a promise to halt its nuclear activities including uranium enrichment and to allow in UN inspectors.

But those plans fell apart, amid broken promises from North Korea to halt its missile launches. Mr King insisted however the suspension of food aid was not related to a collapsed deal on reining in the North's nuclear programme.

"When we made the decision to suspend our food assistance program it was based on our concern that we would not be able to monitor the distribution because the North Koreans had stepped back from agreements they had already reached," Mr King said.

Since then Pyongyang has not made any request for a resumption of aid, even as Washington seeks to bring the North back to the negotiating table for talks on its nuclear program.

Though recent reports by UN agencies have suggested the food crisis has eased, many North Koreans, especially in urban areas outside of Pyongyang, were still not getting enough protein in their diet, he said.

There are reports that Pyongyang may have requested food aid from Mongolia, something King could not confirm.

But he stressed: "Reports from a lot of organisations that operate in North Korea say conditions are fairly difficult... the food situation is very tight."

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