US officer: North Korea nuclear halt needed for food aid

North Korea needs to halt its nuclear program and ballistic missile tests to receive American food aid, the top military officer in the Asia-Pacific said Tuesday.

The comments by Adm. Robert Willard contradict stated U.S. policy that the two issues are separate, and raise questions on whether food has become a bargaining chip in Washington's efforts to contain Pyongyang's drive for nuclear weapons.

Willard, chief of U.S. Pacific Command, said that U.S. conditions for providing food aid also could include North Korea allowing inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. nuclear watchdog, into its nuclear facilities at Yongbyon.

Willard told a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee that the conditions under discussion now include "cessation of nuclearization and ballistic missile testing, and the allowance of the IAEA perhaps back into Yongbyon."

North Korea suffers perennial food shortages, and requested aid from the U.S. and other nations in January 2011. The U.N. and other humanitarian agencies have said millions of North Koreans need help and have reported rising child malnutrition. A group of U.S. charities last fall reported children suffering "slow starvation."

The U.S. sent its own assessment mission to North Korea last June, but has yet to reach a decision. It has previously said that the request for food would be judged purely on the basis of need and the ability of the U.S. to monitor its distribution because of concerns that aid could be diverted to the North Korea's powerful military.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland reiterated that stance Monday. She said that food aid was not linked to the nuclear issue, although it was discussed at U.S.-North Korea negotiations on the North's nuclear program last week in Beijing.

"There is no deal to be had here," Nuland told a news briefing.

The Beijing talks were the first between the wartime enemies since the December death of North Korea's longtime leader Kim Jong Il, and were closely watched for signs of government policy under his heir and new leader, Kim Jong Un.

Before the elder Kim's death, the two sides had appeared close to reaching agreement on the U.S. providing "nutritional assistance" to needy women, children and the elderly, and North Korea freezing its uranium enrichment. Such a freeze could open the way for six-nation aid-for-disarmament talks that North Korea withdrew from in 2009 to restart.

The U.S. envoy on North Korea, Glyn Davies, reported "a little bit of progress" in the Beijing talks but downplayed hopes of any immediate solution to the nuclear standoff.

Worries about North Korea's nuclear capability have taken on renewed urgency since November 2010 when it disclosed a uranium enrichment facility that could give it a second route to manufacture nuclear weapons, in addition to its plutonium-based program.