SEOUL, South Korea – Secretary of State Colin Powell announced Tuesday that the United States will donate 40,000 metric tons of food to North Korea and is prepared to contribute up to 60,000 additional metric tons later in the year.
Powell held the communist leadership in North Korea responsible for continued starvation in that country.
The secretary's announcement at a news conference on South Korean soil hours after the inauguration of President Roh Moo-hyun was seen as an effort to get U.S.-South Korean relations under Roh off to a good start.
Roh is a strong believer in reconciliation with the North as opposed to confrontation, much like his predecessor, Kim Dae-jung.
Many South Koreans are concerned that possible American missteps in its policies toward North Korea could lead to another devastating war on the peninsula.
Powell said he favors a peaceful solution, but he also called the U.S.-South Korean military alliance "unshakable." He said it was imperative for the two countries to maintain close consultation as they attempt to deal with their concerns over North Korea's development of nuclear weapons.
During his election campaign, Roh criticized U.S. policies. But, in his inaugural address, he said the 50-year U.S.-South Korean defense alliance "has made a significant contribution in guaranteeing our security and economic development." He pledged to "foster and develop this cherished alliance."
Powell said at his news conference that a missile test by North Korea apparently timed to coincide with Roh's inauguration was "not surprising."
He said U.S. officials had heard in advance that such a test was likely. "It seems to be a fairly innocuous kind of test," he said.
As part of the administration effort to keep relations with South Korea on an even keel, President Bush sent a letter Sunday to Roh's predecessor, Kim Dae-jung, who stepped down Tuesday morning.
Bush lauded Kim and promised to closely cooperate with Roh to strengthen friendship between the two allies.
Bush said that the South Korean leader can be proud of accomplishments. "You have helped your country weather an unprecedented financial crisis, displayed compassion and patience with North Korea, and dramatically improved relations with all your neighbors," Bush said.
Privately, U.S. officials voiced concern about Kim's efforts to reconcile with North Korea. But Powell has said that South Korean views must be respected because its northern neighbor is hostile and unpredictable and is among the most heavily armed countries in the world.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the donation will bring total U.S. food contributions to North Korea to $650 million since 1995.
In response to a question at a news conference, Powell said the United States does not have a policy of regime change in North Korea but he sharply criticized the Pyongyang leadership for not meeting the needs of the North Korean people.
"We know that people are starving," Powell said. North Korea's leadership he said, "takes what limited resources it has and invests it into an army that hangs over the 38th parallel in great strength, a leadership that spends its limited resources on developing nuclear weapons, resources that should be going to the people."
Boucher reaffirmed that U.S. policy calls for helping to feed hungry people in North Korea without regard to American concerns about North Korea's policies.
The United States normally pledges food aid to North Korea based on U.N. World Food Program assessments.
The agency has appealed for $201 million in food aid for North Korea for 2003. The State Department did not provide a dollar estimate for the U.S. contribution.
The WFP and the U.N. Children's Fund said last Thursday that malnutrition rates among children in North Korea have improved considerably in recent years, but they could deteriorate again without more international aid.