(AFP) – May 24, 2011
SEOUL — A US government team arrived in North Korea Tuesday to assess its request for food aid, after UN agencies and charities reported that millions in the impoverished nation need urgent assistance.
The delegation "arrived to consult on humanitarian issues" between the two countries, the North's official news agency said in a one-sentence report.
Robert King, special envoy on the North's human rights, and Jon Brause, an official with the US Agency for International Development, will head a team investigating the North's needs.
The US State Department says King, making his first visit to the North in his current post, will also raise "appropriate human rights issues". His predecessor Jay Lefkowitz was never allowed in.
The North's leader Kim Jong-Il was meanwhile on the fifth day of a visit to China -- his country's sole major ally, its biggest trading partner and its main source of food and fuel.
Seoul analysts said Kim was likely seeking further assistance for his country's faltering state-directed economy, which is severely hit by shortages of power and raw materials, and possibly also food aid.
Beijing in return wants its ally to adopt Chinese-style economic reforms, and to return to six-party talks which offer economic and diplomatic benefits in return for nuclear disarmament.
After an exceptionally harsh winter, the North early this year appealed to its historic enemy the United States and a variety of other countries for food.
UN agencies who visited in February said six million people -- a quarter of the population -- need urgent aid in a nation where hundreds of thousands died in a famine in the 1990s.
Samaritan's Purse, one of five US groups that visited the North the same month, said the harsh winter had reduced crop yields by up to half and some people were already eating grass, leaves and tree bark to survive.
But some South Korean 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 halted its own annual shipments of 400,000 tonnes of rice to its neighbour in 2008 as relations worsened.
The United States pledged 500,000 tonnes of rice in 2008. Shipments stopped the following year amid questions over transparency of the distribution, and Pyongyang told the Americans to leave.
King, who flew in via Beijing, is due to stay in North Korea until Saturday but Brause may stay longer. South Korea's foreign ministry said it had no information on whether King would visit Seoul on his trip home.
The State Department has said the visit does not necessarily mean the United States would resume food aid, but the team would travel outside the capital and had been promised access.
It said King would also likely raise the case of Eddie Jun Yong-Su, an ethnic Korean US citizen who has been detained in North Korea for months, apparently for missionary work.
The last senior US official to visit Pyongyang was Stephen Bosworth, the special envoy for North Korea, from December 8-10, 2009.
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