The United States said Friday it will send a delegation to North Korea next week to assess the food situation and discuss human rights conditions in the impoverished communist state.
The mission, led by Robert King, special envoy for North Korean human rights issues, will travel to North Korea for five days from Tuesday for "food assessment" and to address "appropriate human rights issues," State Department spokesman Mark Toner said at a daily news briefing.
It is the first time that North Korea has agreed to admit a U.S. human rights envoy.
Neither King, appointed in 2009, nor his predecessor, Jay Lefkowitz, has been to the reclusive North. The same goes for Marzuki Darusman, the U.N.'s special rapporteur on North Korean human rights, and his predecessor, Vitit Muntarbhorn.
Jon Brause, USAID deputy assistant administrator for the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, and food security experts will accompany King to "conduct a field evaluation of food-security needs" and "travel regionally" and "meet with officials in Pyongyang as well," Toner said.
The spokesman said that the trip to North Korea "doesn't necessarily mean that we will provide food assistance, but it's the first step in evaluating the need."
U.S. food aid to the North was suspended in March 2009 amid heightened tensions over Pyongyang's nuclear and missile tests and controversy over the transparency of food distribution.
Washington pledged to provide 500,000 tons of food in 2008, but delivered only 169,000 tons before the shipments were suspended.
King told a media roundtable last month that the U.S. will consult South Korea closely in making any decision on the food aid to North Korea, but added, "The United States can make an independent decision."