- 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 will likely follow within days.

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

Discussions have been taking place since the summer in New York, Geneva and Beijing. The talks 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 sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the negotiations.

Suspension of uranium enrichment by North Korea had been a key outstanding demand from both the United States and South Korea. North Korea has tested two atomic devices in the past five years. Food talks in Beijing yielded a breakthrough on uranium enrichment, they said.

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.

The United States would provide 240,000 tons of high-protein biscuits and vitamins - 20,000 tons a month for a year, 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 convince North Korea to dismantle its plutonium-producing nuclear reactor at Yongbyon, which the government insists exists to generate power. However plutonium can be used to make atomic bombs, and North Korea has claimed a right to develop missiles.

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.

With little arable land and outdated agricultural practices, North Korea has long 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. They met again in Geneva in November. Two days of discussion on food aid in Beijing led to this week’s expected announcement of a food-aid package.

The 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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