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U.S. delegation due in N.K. over food aid

A U.S. fact-finding team will be departing for North Korea on Tuesday with some of its members staying over a week for detailed inspection of the food conditions there, officials here said, confirming the mission that may lead to Washington’s resumption of aid and dialogue with the communist state.

The team, led by special envoy for North Korean human rights issues Robert King, is expected to stay in North Korea for as long as eight days to examine food shortages in regions far from the North’s wealthier capital Pyongyang.

King, granted entry to the North for the first time since working as a human rights envoy, will likely return to Washington before the rest of the team to brief his government on the results of the fact-finding, officials and diplomatic sources in Seoul said.

The U.S. is expected to share the results with South Korea.

Seoul and Washington are “united in their position that the exact amount of the necessary food must be estimated and transparency of the North’s distribution of food must be guaranteed,” before any food is sent, the spokesman of the Foreign Ministry here said.

“Decisions will be made based upon the results of the King delegation’s visit,” Cho Byung-jae told a regular press briefing Tuesday.

The dispatch from Washington comes as international charity groups have been escalating calls for countries to resume sending food to North Korea under the consideration of its starving people rather than its dictator’s ongoing nuclear ambitions and provocations.

Washington stopped sending food to Pyongyang as of March 2009 shortly after the reclusive state conducted a second atomic test. Questioning its food distribution system, the U.S. sent less than half of what it had promised the North ― 500,000 tons of food ―- the previous year.

The U.S. delegation, formed with about eight officials, is likely to meet with Pyongyang officials, including its Foreign Ministry’s Department of America Director Ri Gun, during their visit to discuss the issue of monitoring the North’s food distribution process, officials say.

Pyongyang’s past reluctance to disclose its food distribution process to outsiders have often sparked suspicions that most of the aid is being used to feed its army and political elite.

South Korea, formerly the North’s largest benefactor and trade partner, has been facing the hardest pressure to resume aid as even its staunchest ally Washington is expected to send aid and reopen a direct dialogue channel with Pyongyang soon.

South Korea suspects the North’s ironfisted Kim Jong-il regime may be stockpiling rice to release on the 100th anniversary of its late founder Kim Il-sung next year.

South Korea has been decreasing aid since the Lee Myung-bak administration took power in 2008. Food shipments stopped completely last year, when North Korea conducted two deadly attacks that killed 50 South Koreans.

The World Food Program has been reiterating its confidence over monitoring of the North’s food distribution. Its Pyongyang director Claudia Von Roehl told Seoul legislators last week that the North “has vowed full disclosure” of how donated food is distributed among its people.

Washington, which remains undecided over the issue on the surface, has formerly been firm not to resume talks or aid before Seoul is satisfied with Pyongyang’s apology over last year’s violence. The North remains mute over the issue.

North Korea has relied mostly on outside aid to feed its population of 24 million since the mid-1990s. According to the U.N., more than 6 million North Koreans, about a quarter of the communist state’s population, need urgent aid of some 475,000 tons of food.

By Shin Hae-in (hayney@heraldcorp.com)
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