ELMENDORF AIR FORCE BASE, Alaska - The United States will announce a resumption of food aid to North Korea soon, although concerns about making sure the supplies get to the needy have not yet been resolved, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said yesterday.
Powell's pledge came as he flew to Tokyo to begin a five-day Asian tour aimed at smoothing relations with U.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 for some time that the United States will never use food as a weapon and that shipments would be resumed based on humanitarian need. But in Asia, where Japan has cut off food aid to North Korea in anger over the past abduction of its citizens, that explanation has had little traction.
"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 in August 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 secretive state allowed the same kind of United Nations monitoring expected of other recipients.
U.S. officials and many aid groups had complained that North Koreans were requiring five days' advance notice for World Food Program inspections of food distribution centers, forcing the 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 if such diversions have occurred, they have been minimal.
The United States has been the single largest donor of food aid to the World Food Program. The last ship bearing U.S. aid was unloaded in North Korea in December.
Powell said the United States 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 package], 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 then South Korea, where he will attend the inauguration of the new South Korean president, Roh Moo Hyun.
Sonni Efron writes for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.