Humanitarian organizations that have already surveyed conditions in the impoverished country say supplies are urgently needed. But the United States, like other international donors, distrusts the secretive North Korean government, which has pursued illicit nuclear weapons and missile programs despite its chronic food shortages.
Washington also runs the risk of alienating its staunch ally South Korea if it gives aid. Those concerns appear to have slowed the response.
U.S. special envoy for North Korean human rights issues, Robert King, will arrive Tuesday for a five-day visit, accompanied by a food assessment team, including U.S. Agency for International Development deputy assistant administrator for foreign disaster assistance, Jon Brause, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said. They will conduct a field assessment to verify the surveys by the United Nations and U.S.-based charities and see if there are ways to set up a systems to monitor aid distribution.
"This does not necessarily mean that we will provide assistance, but it's a first step in evaluating the need," Toner told a news conference, adding that the U.S. had been assured it would receive "proper access" to conduct its assessment. "Obviously that is a big concern and one of the reasons we have waited this long to get a team in there."
King would also raise human rights concerns with North Korean officials, and the detention of U.S. citizen Eddie Jun, who was arrested in November, Toner said. Last month, North Korea said it was preparing to indict him, but the U.S. says it has not been informed of charges. South Korean media have reported Jun is accused of proselytizing.
North Korea suffered a 1990s famine that saw about a million of its 23 million people starve, as natural disasters and decades-long mismanagement devastated its centrally controlled economy. Its latest request for food was made in January after summer floods and during a bitter winter that hit staple crops. The U.N. World Food Program assessment released two months ago found more than 6 million North Korean were in urgent need of aid. It said the North's public distribution system would run out of food between May and July.
South Korea is skeptical that North Korea's situation is so dire and suspects the government of Kim Jong Il is stockpiling food secretly ahead of the 2012 centennial of the birth of the communist nation's founder, Kim Il Sung. The suspicions are shared by U.S. critics of Kim's regime. The last U.S. food shipments were stopped in 2009 after monitors were expelled.
The United States says international politics does not factor into the decision whether to resume help; only the need for aid and the ability to monitor its distribution are germane. The State Department says the U.S. and South Korea also share a "common view" on how to proceed with food aid and denies there are differences between them.
South Korea's conservative government suspended large-scale aid in 2008, and says it will not resume assistance without an apology for two military attacks in the past year that killed 50 South Koreans and pitched relations on the divided peninsula to the lowest point in years. South Korea's intelligence agency estimates the North's food production may actually have increased last year.
Western donor countries also remain suspicious that assistance could be diverted to the communist party elite or the powerful military. But U.S. charities, which distributed the last American food handouts, say they are confident that if a similar monitoring regime were in place, they could ensure the food got to needy women, children and the elderly.
Ken Isaacs from Samaritan's Purse, one of five charities that also conducted a food needs survey in February, said the situation is urgent. In some places, state food warehouses would run out between mid-May and mid-June, he said.
"If there's not an intervention, I'm certain people will suffer and people will die," Isaacs said, noting it would take two months, or six weeks in a pinch, to start delivering the food once a decision to provide aid is made.