- Associated Press - Sunday, December 18, 2011

The United States is poised to announce a significant donation of food aid to North Korea this week, the first concrete accomplishment after months of behind-the-scenes diplomatic contacts between the two wartime enemies. An agreement by North Korea to suspend its controversial uranium enrichment program likely will follow within days.

A broad outline of the emerging agreement has been made known to the Associated Press by people close to the negotiations.

Discussions have been taking place since summer in New York, Geneva and Beijing. They already have yielded agreements by North Korea to suspend nuclear and ballistic missile testing, readmit international nuclear inspectors expelled in 2009, and resume a dialogue between North Korea and South Korea, according to the people, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of sensitivity of the negotiations.

The announcement of the food aid, expected to take place as early as Monday in Washington, not only would be welcome news for North Korea, but also pave the way for another crucial U.S.-North Korea meeting in Beijing on Thursday. That meeting in turn could lead within weeks to the resumption of nuclear disarmament talks that would also include China, Japan, Russia and South Korea.

The so-called six-party talks were last held three years ago, and resuming them would amount to a foreign policy coup for the Obama administration.

Suspension of uranium enrichment by North Korea was a key demand from both the U.S. and South Korea of the North, which has tested two atomic devices in the past five years.

The U.S. would provide 240,000 tons of high-protein biscuits and vitamins — 20,000 tons a month for a year — but not much-wanted rice, according to reports in the South Korean media. It would be the first food aid from the U.S. in nearly three years.

Negotiators have sought for two decades to persuade North Korea to dismantle its plutonium-producing nuclear reactor at Yongbyon, which the government insists exists to generate much-needed power. But plutonium, when enriched, can be used to make atomic bombs, and North Korea also stands by its right to develop missiles to defend itself against the nuclear-armed United States.

In 2009, North Korea tested a missile capable of reaching U.S. shores, earning widespread condemnation and strengthened U.N. sanctions. An incensed North Korea, which insisted the rocket launch was designed to send a satellite into space, walked away from ongoing nuclear disarmament talks in protest.

In the weeks that followed, North Korea tested a nuclear device and announced it would begin enriching uranium, which would give it a second way to make atomic weapons.

North Korea’s disclosure of a uranium enrichment program was bait” for negotiations and aid, said Jeung Young-tae, an analyst with the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul. “And the United States grabbed that bait.”

With little arable land and outdated agricultural practices, North Korea long has struggled to feed its people. Flooding and a harsh winter further destroyed crops. The World Food Program issued a plea earlier this year for $218 million in humanitarian help to feed the most vulnerable.

As donations trickled in, Washington deliberated for months on whether to contribute food aid.

Then, in July, U.S. and North Korean negotiators met in New York, and again in Geneva in November. Two days of discussion on food aid last week in Beijing led up to this week’s expected announcement of a food-aid package.

This diplomatic dance has unfolded as North Korea prepares for two milestone events for its citizens: the 100th anniversary of the April 1912 birth of President Kim Il-sung, who is officially regarded as the nation’s “eternal president” long after his death, and a movement to prepare Kim Jong-un, son of current leader Kim Jong-il, to become the next ruler.

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