By Arshad Mohammed
SEOUL (Reuters) - The United States said Tuesday it planned to give North Korea 40,000 to 100,000 tons of food aid this year, a sharp reduction in assistance that it said was not related to North Korea's suspected nuclear program.
Secretary of State Colin Powell announced the food donations at the end of a four-day visit to Asia dominated by concerns about Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions and disagreements, particularly with China, on how to curb them.
Washington has said it will not use food aid as a political tool to try to change Pyongyang's behavior and a U.S. official said the amount was lower than last year's 157,000 tons because the U.N. World Food Program (WFP) had asked for less aid and because other nations were expected to boost their donations.
The State Department said it will initially give North Korea 40,000 tons and will offer some 60,000 more depending in part on whether Pyongyang lets donors track its distribution and provides access to all vulnerable groups in the country.
Powell, who has said he does not want food aid to prop up the North Korean elite, voiced disdain for Pyongyang's leaders but said the United States is not pursuing "regime change" in North Korea.
"We know that people are starving in North Korea. We know the economy is not functioning. We know that the whole society is in great distress," Powell told reporters after talks with newly inaugurated South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun.
"The leadership acts in a way that is simply inconsistent with basic human values and basic economic sense," he added, saying the North Korean government invested its limited resources in nuclear weapons rather than helping its people.
"We have never stepped back from expressing our disdain for the North Korean regime but we have not (announced) a policy of regime change," he added.
While U.S. officials say food aid is not used for political purposes, Washington has raised questions on whether it would keep giving Pyongyang food by emphasizing concerns that donors cannot visit parts of the country to monitor distribution.
"As (U.S.) President (George W.) Bush has said, we are prepared to help feed people in North Korea without regard to our concerns about North Korea's policies," the State Department said in a statement.
"At the same time, we have serious concerns about North Korea's restrictions on monitoring and on access to its people that impair the World Food Program's ability to ensure that our food assistance gets to those who need it," it added.
The State Department noted that it had raised such concerns and urged North Korea to address them in December 2001 and in June 2002, adding: "We regret that they have not responded."
DISAGREEMENTS ON NORTH KOREA
The primary issue on Powell's visit to Japan, China and South Korea has been to try to forge a common stance on how to persuade North Korea to abandon its nuclear programs.
Powell, who came to Seoul to attend Roh's inauguration on Tuesday, appeared to make little progress in persuading China to take a more active stance on using its diplomatic and economic influence on North Korea.
Monday he met top Chinese officials in Beijing. Chinese official media said China had reiterated that it wanted the United States to hold direct talks with North Korea as soon as possible to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue, something Washington has resisted in favor of a multilateral approach.
Powell said Roh supported the multilateral strategy, but was also anxious for direct U.S.-North Korean talks.
North Korea's economy is in a shambles and it is unable to feed its people, leaving it dependent on external food aid.
The last U.S. food shipment was made in December and U.S. officials say they had not been able to commit to more since then because they lacked budget authority from Congress until Bush signed an comprehensive spending bill last week.
Asked why Washington was offering less aid this year, a U.S. official said "because they (the WFP) asked for less and because we are expecting others to give more."
The State Department said the WFP last year asked for 611,000 tons and received 303,000 tons, more than half from the United States. Funding for the initial 40,000 ton donation will come from the U.S. Agency for International Development's PL-480 program and from the U.S. Agriculture Department's Section 416(b) program.
The State Department said it would soon decide what commodities to give in consultation with the WFP.
"Our decision to provide 40,000 metric tons of food at this time is based on demonstrated need in North Korea, competing needs elsewhere, and donors ability to access all vulnerable groups and monitor distribution," the State Department said. "Additional U.S. food aid contributions for North Korea in 2003 will be based on these same factors.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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