- Associated Press - Thursday, December 15, 2011

BEIJING (AP) — U.S. officials say food aid to North Korea could resume depending on whether Pyongyang can provide the necessary monitoring assurances in talks between the sides that began Thursday in Beijing.

The United Nations and U.S. charities say aid is badly needed, but the U.S. government is concerned that North Korea, which has plowed resources into a nuclear weapons program, could divert food aid to political elites and its vast military.

Robert King, U.S. special envoy for North Korean human rights issues, and senior U.S. aid official Jon Brause met Thursday with North Korea’s director-general for American affairs, Ri Gun.

The talks are expected to last at least two days and are to focus on strict monitoring mechanisms should the U.S. decide to give aid.

The last U.S. food handouts ended in March 2009 when North Korea expelled U.S. aid groups that were monitoring the distribution. That action occurred shortly before the North conducted long-range rocket and nuclear tests that drew stiff international sanctions.

North Korea has appealed for food aid, but its state media has not commented on the talks.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Wednesday the aid could include vitamin supplements and high-protein biscuits for malnourished people in addition to regular food.

Such items would be unlikely to end up “on some leader’s banquet table,” Ms. Nuland said.

“They (North Korean officials) know that we were obviously deeply dissatisfied with the way this went before and that we need more discussions about it,” Ms.  Nuland told a news conference.

Some aid groups also have urged that flour be provided rather than more desirable rice, which they say routinely is siphoned off and provided to the regime’s most loyal backers in the cities.

The United Nations reported last month that North Korea had an improved harvest this year despite a harsh winter and summer floods, but that malnutrition among children has increased. It said nearly 3 million people will continue to require food assistance next year.

North Korea has suffered chronic food shortages for the past two decades because of a combination of economic and agricultural mismanagement and natural disasters. It suffered a famine in the 1990s that killed hundreds of thousands of people.

Mr. King visited North Korea in May accompanied by a food assessment team from the U.S. Agency for International Development. The findings of the mission were not made public.

This week’s aid discussions come as expectations grow that the U.S. could hold a new round of talks with North Korea on its nuclear program. There have been two rounds since July, a possible prelude to a resumption of China-sponsored six-nation disarmament-for-aid talks that have been in limbo since 2009.

In Beijing for talks with Chinese officials, Glyn Davies, the new U.S. envoy on North Korean affairs, said it was up to North Korea to create the conditions for new bilateral discussions.

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