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Washington approved $900,000 in emergency flood aid, mostly tents and plastic sheeting, in August. But the Obama administration is still mulling whether to offer food aid, even after sending officials to North Korea to assess the food situation four months ago following a direct plea from Pyongyang in January.

The North Koreans raised the issue of food aid at nuclear talks with the U.S. in New York in July, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said, and a new round of U.S.-North Korea talks on disarmanent is set to take place next week in Geneva.

The U.S. reluctance to commit to more food aid reflects a familiar dilemma for Washington: whether to help North Korea when its own officials plow scant national resources into developing atomic weapons and ballistic missiles.

Providing aid also risks alienating U.S. ally South Korea, whose president has linked aid to nuclear disarmament and has all but stopped aid and money to Pyongyang following the sinking of a South Korean warship last year that killed 46 sailors.

Michael Green, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank and an ex-Asia adviser to former President George W. Bush, says the food and nuclear issues should be separate.

“If you don’t get satisfaction on the nuclear deal and you don’t give food aid, what you’re at least implicitly doing is suggesting that the North Korean people should not get food because of the regime’s stance on nuclear issues,” he said.

Ms. Amos sad she hopes to be able to reassure donors that funding for the U.N. appeal will make it to the hungry and not to the plates of the political and military elite. North Korean officials have expressed a willingness to allow rigorous monitoring of aid distribution, Mr. White said.

The issue of food aid to North Korea is not new: The nation, built on a philosophy of self-reliance, was forced to accept outside help during a famine in the mid-1990s that killed hundreds of thousands of people, and to this day grudgingly relies on aid to feed up to a quarter of its population of 24 million.

But the latest crisis comes at a delicate time for Pyongyang.

Next year marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of late President Kim Il-sung, a landmark milestone seen as a key occasion to rally national pride and unity. At the same time, current leader Kim Jong-il is grooming his young son Kim Jong-un to eventually succeed him as ruler.

One of Kim Il-sung’s most famous creeds was to ensure that his people eat “rice and meat soup,” and filling bellies is one way to ensure loyalty.

Current government policy calls for building up the economy, including modernizing farms. But even North Korea’s impressive new showcase farms aren’t producing enough to make up for the damage from the harsh winter cold and summer flooding.

In March, the WFP warned that North Korea’s publicly distributed rations would run out by July. While that didn’t happen, U.N. workers in Pyongyang say rations were reduced to less than 200 grams a day.

Those with cash, especially in Pyongyang, can supplement government-provided rations with meat, fruit and vegetables. Farmers also share their own harvest with relatives in the cities.

But here in the country and in many of North Korea’s poorer small cities, people have neither the cash nor the access to protein, produce or gardens.

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