U.S. to Send N. Korea 500,000 Tons of Food Aid

By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 17, 2008

The Bush administration said yesterday it will restart food aid to North Korea and provide it with more than 500,000 tons of food -- the largest one-year amount since 1999.

U.S. officials said aid will begin to flow for the first time since 2005 because they reached a breakthrough with Pyongyang on oversight of how the food would be distributed, including random inspections and allowing Korean-speaking aid workers into the country.

Officials said the deal was unrelated to a separate effort to implement North Korea's promise to give up its nuclear weapons, but both the nuclear deal and the food agreement were reached after sustained diplomacy by U.S. officials. Talks on the food aid began last October at the administration's request, about the same time the United States and its negotiating partners achieved a breakthrough on the nuclear disarmament talks. Officials at the U.S. Agency for International Development made three trips to Pyongyang in the last eight months to achieve the deal.

"We don't see any connection," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said. "We're doing this because America is a compassionate nation and the United States and the American people are people who reach out to those in need."

North Korea's 23 million citizens face a devastating crisis of food shortages and famine, and "the prospect of hunger-related deaths occurring in the next several months is approaching certainty," according to analysis released this month by the Peter G. Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.

Marcus Noland, one of the authors and an expert on the North Korean economy, scoffed at the notion that there is no connection between the food agreement and nuclear diplomacy.

"The United States government absolutely has maintained a separation between humanitarian assistance and diplomatic goals," Noland said. "In practice, we and others link the provision of food aid" to diplomacy. He said that he has previously documented 12 instances in which North Korean food aid has been tied to U.S. diplomatic actions, such as one major delivery that a senior Clinton administration official admitted was linked to a North Korean moratorium on launching missiles.

At this time, "the State Department is looking for every policy lever it can find" to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear programs, Noland said.

Beginning in June, the U.N. World Food Program will distribute 400,000 tons of the new food aid, while U.S. nongovernmental organizations will distribute the rest.

U.S. food aid to North Korea reached a peak in 1999 of about 685,000 tons, worth $222 million, when the Clinton administration was seeking its own agreements with North Korea, according to the Congressional Research Service. U.S. food aid then fell dramatically during the Bush administration before ending entirely in 2005 over a dispute about monitoring.

There have been numerous reports of the North Korean military and senior officials diverting as much as 30 percent of aid for their own use, including reselling donated commodities at steep markups. But the United States and the World Food Program appeared to have little leverage to negotiate new terms because China and South Korea at the time shipped huge amounts of aid with few or no conditions attached.

When the U.S. aid program was shut down three years ago, the World Food Program had 50 monitors and five sub-offices around the country. But the North Korean government did not allow any Korean speakers on the teams and would not allow inspections without six- to 10-day notice. In addition, monitors had no access to the food once it arrived in the country.

Under the new agreement, Korean-speaking aid workers will be permitted, random monitoring inspections will be allowed and officials will have access to commodities in warehouses and other facilities, according to a USAID official involved in the negotiations. Officials expect to employ 65 monitors and have five sub-offices.

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