WASHINGTON – The United States will provide 50,000 metric tons of food to North Korea (search) in a humanitarian decision that the Bush administration said is unrelated to stalemated efforts to get Pyongyang to end its nuclear weapons program.
Trying to ease the needs of the North Korean people and efforts to halt the weapons program are not linked, State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said Wednesday in announcing a decision.
The Bush administration made a similar decision in July of last year and said that the timing of Wednesday's announcement was routine. The year before, the administration donated 100,000 tons. All of these donations were made as the United States and North Korea jostled over the weapons issue, as they still do.
Officials did not specify what types of food would be provided. A metric ton, which weighs 2,205 pounds, is a commonly used measure outside the United States.
North Korea indicated earlier this month that it was ready to resume talks with the United States and four other countries — Russia, China, Japan and South Korea — but no date has been set for that.
At the White House, press secretary Scott McClellan said: "We've been a big supplier of food to the North Korean people and the president has said that he does not believe that food should be used as a diplomatic weapon."
"We have always had concerns, though, that that food is getting to the people who need it — the people who are starving, the people who are hungry," McClellan added. "We want to make sure there are assurances that that food is going to those who need it — not to the government and not to the military in North Korea."
Two private U.S. experts on the reclusive regime said this week that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il had sent a message to President Bush in November 2000 saying the United States and North Korea "should be able to resolve the nuclear issue in compliance with the demands of the new century."
"If the United States makes a bold decision, we will respond accordingly," Kim said in a written personal message to Bush that he sent through Donald Gregg, a former U.S. ambassador to South Korea and key aide to Bush's father, then-Vice President George H.W. Bush, and Don Oberdorfer, a Korea expert at the School of Advanced International Studies in Washington.
The message appeared to reflect a persistent North Korean demand for direct talks with the United States, in preference to the six-party format.
The Bush administration has offered assurances U.S. and North Korean diplomats could confer against the six-nation backdrop.
And yet, with these and other signs of a breakthrough in the making no date or place for negotiations has been announced.
Two months ago, faced with a published report that the administration had decided to halt food aid to North Korea, the State Department said that North Korea's needs were being weighed against hunger in other countries.
Richard Boucher, then the department's spokesman, said the report was wrong and a decision was likely by the end of the fiscal year, Sept. 30.
"We don't calibrate or decide on food assistance based on political factors and we do want to help the people of North Korea and make sure the people who are in need get the food that they need," Boucher said at the time.
The food aid is being provided through the World Food Program. Ereli said Wednesday there were indications monitoring had improved somewhat.
South Korea, meanwhile, has begun providing 200,000 tons of fertilizer to North Korea in a move designed to help overcome a food shortages.
And yet, The International Crisis Group, a private, not-for-profit organization, said in a recent report that North Korea was undergoing the most profound economic change in its 57-year history as a state.
Semiprivate markets, shops and small businesses are spreading through the country, the report said. "The international community has an opportunity to increase the chances that North Korea will make a successful transition from a Stalinist command economy to one that is more market-driven," it said.