SEOUL, South Korea – North Korea said Wednesday that before Kim Jong Il's death the United States offered to provide food aid if it halted its uranium enrichment program, and although Pyongyang blasted Washington for "politicizing" food shipments, it appeared to leave the door open for a deal.
Comments about the proposed deal, attributed to an unidentified Foreign Ministry spokesman in Pyongyang, carried an indignant tone, but the North's statement also said it would wait and "see if the United States has a willingness to establish confidence" with North Korea.
The statement carried by the official Korean Central News Agency offers an early look at how the government now led by Kim's son, Kim Jong Un, will handle two of North Korea's most pressing issues: a long-running food crisis and international pressure to end its nuclear program.
North Korea, after decades of economic mismanagement, has long struggled to feed its people, analysts say, but the problem is highlighted this year by the North's repeated vows to start down the road toward a strong, prosperous country as it celebrates the centennial of the birth of founder Kim Il Sung in April.
The Associated Press reported before Kim's Dec. 17 death that the United States was poised to announce a significant donation of food aid to North Korea. That would have been followed within days by an agreement to suspend its uranium enrichment program, according to a broad outline of the emerging agreement made known to The AP by people close to the negotiations.
Discussions were suspended after Kim's death.
The North's statement said Washington made its proposal in talks with Pyongyang that began in July last year.
The North's spokesman said in the statement that the United States proposed in meetings before Kim's death to provide food aid and discuss temporarily lifting sanctions if Pyongyang took confidence-building measures such as suspending its uranium-enrichment activities.
The North said Washington later sought to change the amount of food aid and the items it had earlier offered.
The statement also said unspecified "hostile forces" are spreading "unsavory" rumors that North Korea "is holding its hands out for food" after Kim Jong Il's death.