The Obama administration announced Friday that it is sending an official U.S. envoy to North Korea for the first time in two years, with the goal of evaluating the Communist nation’s need for food aid as it struggles with the effects of floods and a brutal winter.
U.N. and humanitarian agencies have been pleading for assistance for the poor, isolated country. North Korea is “highly vulnerable to a food crisis,” Claudia von Roehl, director of the World Food Program’s operations in the country, said Thursday.
The U.S. government cut off its food donations in 2009, frustrated with the obstacles the North Korean government placed on monitoring shipments. American and other foreign donors worry that the North Korean military diverts assistance for itself.
State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Friday that the special envoy for North Korean human rights, Robert King, and an official from the U.S. Agency for International Development would lead a team of food experts visiting the country for five days starting Tuesday.
U.S. officials have stressed that any aid would be based solely on humanitarian need. Washington’s relations with Pyongyang have been icy in the past few years, a time when the North Koreans have sunk a South Korean ship, bombarded civilians in the South and tested a nuclear weapon.
David Straub, a former State Department official and a professor of Korean studies at Stanford University, said there was no sign that the sending of the envoy amounted to an easing of relations. But the Obama administration is confronted with the risk of starvation in North Korea, he said.
“It’s very hard for the administration not to respond to that,” Straub said.
While North Korea has begged foreign donors for food aid recently, it has shown no sign of being willing to dismantle its nuclear weapons program, as the United States and key Asian countries have demanded.
Toner, the State Department spokesman, said the U.S. delegation will check to see whether there are “ways to set up monitoring systems to make sure that [food] reaches the proper end uses.”
King will also “raise appropriate human rights issues,” Toner said, and will press the North Koreans about the case of an American, Eddie Jun, arrested in November. South Korean news reports have said Jun is accused of religious proselytizing.
The United States and South Korea had been the top food donors to North Korea, but both cut assistance in the past few years. South Korean officials said this week that they have no plans to resume food aid to the North.