N. Korea Agrees to Expanded Food Aid, Allows U.N. to Monitor Use

By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, June 30, 2008; 11:20 AM

TOKYO, June 30 -- A U.S. ship bearing 37,000 tons of wheat arrived in North Korea on Sunday, the first installment in what is scheduled to be a major expansion of international food aid inside the closed totalitarian country.

The United Nations World Food Program said it had signed an anticipated agreement with North Korea that would increase the international feeding operation there to more than 5 million people, up from the 1.2 million people now being fed.

The agreement also promises to give U.N. monitors more access than ever to find out who is eating the free food, a senior U.N. official said Monday.

"This agreement provides the best monitoring conditions the WFP has ever had in North Korea," said Tony Banbury, Asia director for the program, which has been funneling food to the famine-plagued North since the 1990s. "This marks a major advance in the way we work in this country."

The U.S. ship arrived in the North Korean port of Nampo, carrying the first of the half-million tons of food pledged in the spring by the Bush administration. The United States is providing the bulk of the food to be distributed in North Korea this year.

American food arrived on the heels of an extraordinary week of diplomacy on the part of North Korea, which in October of 2006 frightened the world by exploding a small nuclear bomb.

On Friday, Kim Jong Il's government invited Western television crews to film the demolition of a cooling tower at a disabled nuclear plant. On Thursday, it handed over a long-delayed declaration that disclosed some details about plutonium production.

That, in turn, prompted President Bush to take North Korea off a list of countries that sponsor terrorism and to ease some trade sanctions.

The United Nations continues to warn that North Korea is on the brink of a humanitarian crisis. Crop failures have caused a food shortfall this year of 1.66 million tons, about double the need of last year and the worst since 2001, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization said in April.

The United States says its food aid is determined by humanitarian need and that food is not used as a diplomatic lever. But its food is arriving during a season of much-improved, if still chilly and suspicious, relations between the Stalinist North and the Bush administration.

Bush in 2001 described Kim's government as part of an "axis of evil," but began negotiating with it shortly after North Korea exploded a test nuclear device.

The latest signal that North Korean paranoia about the West may be moderating is the terms under which Kim's government says it will allow food aid to be distributed.

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