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US envoy discusses N. Korea food aid in Seoul
by Staff Writers
Seoul (AFP) May 17, 2011

US envoy Stephen Bosworth held talks Tuesday in South Korea about North Korea's request for food aid, amid a report that Washington would send a team to Pyongyang next week to assess its needs.

Bosworth, the US special envoy for North Korea, said he and his Seoul hosts have "largely reached a common view" on possible US aid, but did not elaborate.

The communist state has asked the United States and a variety of other countries for help to feed its people. Private aid groups and UN organisations say millions face severe shortages.

Some Seoul officials are sceptical about the need, suspecting the regime wants to stockpile supplies before the 100th anniversary next year of the birth of founding leader Kim Il-Sung.

The South's Yonhap news agency said Robert King, the US special envoy on the North's human rights, would lead a delegation to the North next week to assess the extent of food shortages.

"We will be making a decision on that (the visit) in the next few days and it will be announced from Washington," Bosworth told reporters after talks with the South's chief nuclear envoy Wi Sung-Lac.

The United States in 2008 pledged 500,000 tonnes of rice but shipments stopped the following year amid questions over distribution transparency.

Washington has said it would closely consult Seoul before any decision to resume US assistance. South Korea halted its own annual shipments of 400,000 tonnes of rice to its neighbour in 2008.

Samaritan's Purse, one of five US groups that visited North Korea in February, said a harsh winter had reduced crop yield by up to half and some people were already eating grass, leaves and tree bark to survive.

UN agencies said six million people -- a quarter of the population -- need urgent aid. A famine in the 1990s killed hundreds of thousands.

Yonhap said King's team could arrive as early as next Monday.

"The purpose of this trip will be confined to discussing the issue of food assistance and it will have no political connotations," it quoted a South Korean government source as saying.

Inter-Korean relations have been icy for over a year, and are complicating efforts to restart long-stalled six-nation talks on the North's nuclear disarmament.

The nuclear issue assumed greater urgency last November when the North disclosed a uranium enrichment plant which could give it a second way to make nuclear weapons.

Bosworth made no comment on efforts spearheaded by China to revive the six-party talks. But he described the uranium programme as "illegal under various UN Security Council resolutions and contrary to various undertakings" made earlier by Pyongyang on denuclearisation.

The talks group the two Koreas, the United States, China, Russia and Japan. The North quit the process in April 2009, a month before its second atomic weapons test.

It has expressed conditional willingness to resume talking, but Washington and Seoul say it must first show proof of its sincerity about disarmament and improve cross-border ties.

Seoul has accused Pyongyang of torpedoing a warship in March 2010 with the loss of 46 lives. The North denies the charge but shelled a South Korean border island last November, killing four people.

The King trip, if confirmed, would be the first time the rights envoy has been allowed to visit the North. His predecessor, Jay Lefkowitz, was never allowed to make such a visit.

Bosworth was also scheduled to meet Chun Yung-Woo, presidential secretary for foreign affairs and security, and Unification Minister Hyun In-Taek.


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