Last updated: June 23, 2005 4:13 am

US pledges food aid to North Korea

Several million North Koreans struggling to stave off famine will receive food from the US this year, the Bush administration announced on Wednesday, declaring that its continued aid was humanitarian and not tied to progress in ending the communist state's nuclear weapons programme.

The US pledged 50,000 tonnes for this year, the same as in 2004, to be distributed by the World Food Programme. Nonetheless, the UN agency remains far short of its goal of supplying a total of 500,000 tonnes.

With North Korea facing its worst crisis since famine in the 1990s killed 2m-3m people, the UN food agency had urged the US to double its contribution.

“It is a humanitarian act based on need and not based on political considerations and not linked to six-party talks,” said Adam Ereli, State Department spokesman. However, analysts said Washington was calculating that its initiative could lead to a breakthrough in the diplomatic stalemate by giving Kim Jong-il, the North Korean leader, the opportunity to decide to return to the negotiating table after a year-long absence.

If North Korea maintained its refusal, the analysts said, the US would be in a stronger moral position to abandon the six-party process and take a tougher line with sanctions.

“We desperately need the food now,” said Anthony Banbury, Asia director for the WFP. The US announcement came on the same day as two prominent Americans revealed that while visiting Pyongyang in November 2002, Mr Kim gave them a letter for US President George W. Bush in which he offered to “find a way to resolve the nuclear issue” if the US recognised North Korean sovereignty and pledged non-aggression.

Writing in the Washington Post, Donald Gregg, a former ambassador, and Don Oberdorfer, a former Post diplomatic correspondent, said the Bush administration “spurned engagement” with North Korea because it was “deep in secret planning and a campaign of public persuasion” to invade Iraq.

Asked to respondby reporters, ScottMcClellan, the WhiteHouse spokesman, replied: “I'm just not interested in ploughing that old ground.”

North Korea's economic crisis is deepening. Reforms have distorted prices and food supplies, causing great disparities between pensioners who receive 35 cents a month as well as inadequate rations, and those few rich enough to buy a Mercedes.

The WFP has downgraded its estimate of this year's harvest. Because of shortfalls in donations, the UN agency can only feed 3.6m North Koreans on rations reduced by a half, out of an estimated vulnerable population of 6.5m.

Japan was the largest donor to North Korea through the WFP last year, followed by South Korea and the US. China is the single largest supplier of food, but contributes directly.

Pyongyang has recently signalled a willingness to return to the nuclear talks hosted by China, but on the condition that the US make the right gestures, including a show of “respect”.

Jack Pritchard, an analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington and a former US envoy to the negotiations, said a new US pledge of food was a smart way of getting Mr Kim to re-engage while strengthening the moral position of the US.

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