The United States could spend up to $24 million a year in humanitarian aid for North Koreans, much of it for refugees who have fled the impoverished, totalitarian state, under legislation approved by the House Monday and sent to the president for his signature.

The legislation, passed by voice vote, would also condition direct relief inside North Korea (search) to assurances that the country is using the money properly, for such purposes as human rights protection, family reunification or prison reform.

The measure came days after President Bush (search) and Democratic challenger John Kerry (search) differed in their debate on how to deal with the North Korean nuclear threat. Kerry advocated bilateral talks with the Pyongyong government while Bush said direct contacts with the North Koreans could disrupt six-nation negotiations also involving China, Russia, Japan and South Korea.

The House bill, sponsored by Rep. Jim Leach (search), R-Iowa, would allow up to $20 million a year over the next four years for international groups helping North Koreans who have fled their country, mainly to China.

Leach noted that China currently refuses to allow the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees to identify genuine refugees, and forcibly returns North Koreans to their country, where they face imprisonment, torture and sometimes execution. North Korean women and girls are vulnerable to trafficking and sexual exploitation, he said.

The bill, he said, shows China that it will receive help in defraying the costs of caring for the refugees if it abides by its obligations under international refugee conventions.

The measure also contains up to $2 million a year for human rights and democracy programs and $2 million for radio broadcasts into North Korea.

In addition, the bill clarifies that North Koreans seeking refugee or asylum status in the United States will not be considered nationals of South Korea, which makes it more difficult for them to win approval.

Rep. Robert Wexler, D-Fla., said that in focusing on North Korea's nuclear weapons program the United States has "paid insufficient attention to the horrendous human rights situation in North Korea and the desperate human crisis caused by the North Korean misrule."

Leach said that since the collapse of the centralized agricultural system in the 1990s, more than 2 million North Koreans are estimated to have died of starvation.

The Senate passed the bill last week, adding language recommending that the United States explore the possibilities of initiating a regional dialogue on human rights in North Korea.