SEOUL, South Korea – The United States plans to send an envoy to North Korea for talks on the North's urgent request for food aid, a South Korean official said Tuesday.
The U.S. government suspended food handouts to North Korea in 2009 after monitors were expelled. But activists and humanitarian groups have recently urged Washington to resume shipments, saying North Koreans are suffering after floods and a harsh winter.
Sending food aid would be controversial because of the widespread belief that large parts of past shipments ended up with the North's military and elite, not hungry citizens. Washington and Seoul also accuse North Korea of seeking to expand its nuclear arsenal.
The United States plans to send its envoy for North Korean human rights, Robert King, to Pyongyang, possibly early next week, to assess the need for aid and ways to make sure the shipments reach the hungry, a South Korean Foreign Ministry official said.
A group of visiting U.S. officials headed by special envoy for North Korea policy Stephen Bosworth told South Korea about the plans, the official said on condition of anonymity because Washington plans to make a formal announcement.
Bosworth told reporters earlier Tuesday that Washington will decide whether to send King to Pyongyang in the next few days. He said he had good talks with South Korean officials about the North's request for help.
"I think we have a very strong common view on how to proceed," Bosworth said.
South Korea's Unification Ministry said Tuesday that it has no immediate plans to resume massive government food aid to North Korea.
"Nothing has changed in the government's position on food aid," spokeswoman Lee Jong-joo said. She said the resumption of food shipments depends on North Korea's need for assistance and also on whether it takes responsibility for past attacks on the South.
South Korea was a major food donor to North Korea for about a decade until conservative President Lee Myung-bak halted unconditional assistance when he took office in early 2008. Prospects for a resumption of aid dimmed last year after two deadly attacks blamed on North Korea that killed a total of 50 South Koreans.
A U.N. report in March said more than 6 million North Koreans, about a quarter of the population, need urgent international food aid.
North Korea has resorted to outside handouts to help feed its people since the mid-1990s when natural disasters and mismanagement devastated its centrally controlled economy and led to widespread starvation.