US considers resuming food aid to North Korea

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WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. is considering resumption of food aid to North Korea amid fears people there could starve after a harsh winter, top officials said Tuesday.

Special envoy Stephen Bosworth told the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations that the U.S. is assessing the need for assistance after the reclusive Asian nation requested it.

The U.S. government suspended food handouts to the impoverished North in 2009 after monitors were expelled, and a resumption would be politically sensitive, because of concerns it could be seen as a reward for bad behavior. In the past year, Pyongyang has been accused of launching two unprovoked military attacks on rival South Korea, and has revealed a uranium enrichment program that could provide it a new means of generating material for nuclear weapons.

Top U.S. diplomat for East Asia, Kurt Campbell, told lawmakers that no decision has yet been made resuming aid, and it would be made in close coordination with South Korea.

Asked whether food aid could ultimately ease economic pressure on the North, effectively allowing it put more resources into its nuclear programs, Campbell said North Korea had historically shown it was willing to allow “enormous suffering” among its people, noting that many starved during the 1990s.

“The choice here is whether these people are allowed to starve. It’s a humanitarian issue not a political one,” he said.

Five non-government U.S.-based aid groups who visited North Korea last month reported children suffering from acute malnutrition and people foraging for wild grasses and herbs. Summer floods and the bitterest winter in decades had cut key crop harvests by more than half, and North Korean authorities estimated that food stocks would be exhausted by mid-June, the groups said.

The United Nations, which has an ongoing but underfunded food distribution program in North Korea, is also currently conducting a food needs assessment there.

Bosworth said if U.S. assistance was resumed, effective monitoring would ensure it reached civilians who most needed it — amid concerns food could be diverted to the military.