Los Angeles Times 22 February, 2003

U.S. to Resume Food Aid to North Korea

Concerns over supplies reaching the needy remain, Powell says as he begins his Asian trip.

by Sonni Efron

ELMENDORF AIR FORCE BASE, Alaska -- The United States will announce a resumption of food aid to North Korea soon, although concerns about making sure that the supplies reach the needy have not yet been resolved, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said Friday.

Powell's pledge came as he flew to Tokyo to begin a five-day Asian tour aimed at smoothing relations with America's allies and trying to find a diplomatic formula to bring North Korea to the negotiating table in the standoff over its nuclear programs.

U.S. officials have said that the United States will never use food as a weapon and that shipments would be resumed for humanitarian reasons.

"After all the politics, there are kids out there that are starving, and if we can help them, we will," Powell told reporters on his plane. "We've got to make sure it's the kids that are getting the food."

The U.S. Agency for International Development had announced last summer that the United States would provide no further contributions to the World Food Program, which administers most of the aid to North Korea, until the communist state allowed the same kind of U.N. monitoring expected of other recipients.

U.S. officials and many aid groups had complained that North Korea was requiring five days' advance notice for World Food Program inspections of food distribution centers, forcing the U.N. agency's monitors to use government-appointed translators and taking other steps that made it difficult to ensure that the food was going to the needy. Unconfirmed refugee reports say food has been diverted to the military, although World Food Program officials say that if such diversions have occurred, they have been minimal.

The U.S. has been the largest donor of food aid to the program. The last ship bearing U.S. aid was unloaded in North Korea in December, and aid officials say hunger there has become dire.

Powell said the U.S. could not have provided aid any sooner because Congress approved its annual spending bill only this week.

"We'll be making an announcement soon of an initial [aid] tranche, then we will monitor the World Food Program needs" and requests as the year goes on, Powell said.

On this trip, Powell will visit Japan, China and South Korea, where he will attend the inauguration of the new South Korean president, Roh Moo Hyun.

Powell said he was not bringing a plan to Asia for resolving the North Korean problem but will be consulting with the allies to find a multilateral format within which the U.S. can talk directly with the Pyongyang regime about its nuclear program.

He insisted that he won't be pushed into making concessions to the North Koreans just because of a sense in some quarters that time is running out.

"Time is passing, and there's always the possibility that North Korea might take other actions that we would not like to see, but we have made it clear to all of our partners and friends that it would be wise for North Korea not to take further provocative action," Powell said.

"We're not going to let time become a weapon to be used against us, essentially saying, 'You must respond to what North Korea is asking because of time or because of what might happen tomorrow,' " he said. "We will remain ready to engage when the opportunity presents itself."