Washington: A US envoy back from North Korea voiced concern about sending food aid but offered guarded optimism at launching a dialogue with the reclusive communist state on human rights.
Robert King, the US special envoy for human rights in North Korea who visited last week, on Thursday said the United States was still deciding whether to provide food. Christian relief groups have voiced fear of imminent food shortages.
"If the team determines there is a legitimate humanitarian need, (North Korea) must first address our serious concerns about monitoring and outstanding issues related to our previous food program," King told Congress.
King said that his title initially caused consternation in North Korea, which has never previously allowed in either the US or UN special envoys in charge of human rights in the country.
But King said that he did not shy away from the issue with Kim Kye-Gwan, the North`s first vice foreign minister, and wound up talking to him about human rights for 20 minutes.
Kim "invited me back to Pyongyang to have discussions on human rights and I`m looking forward to possibly having that opportunity”, King said.
"This is a significant first step and I believe we can build up on this foundation with our partners who share our deep concerns about the North Korean people," he said.
The State Department in its annual report said North Korea had a dismal rights record, carrying out a range of abuses including infanticide and apparent shoot-to-kill orders against fleeing refugees.
During King`s visit, he also won the release of a US citizen, Eddie Jun Yong-Su, a businessman who was apparently detained for missionary activities.
North Korea -- whose founding ideology is "juche”, or "self-reliance" -- abruptly threw out US humanitarian workers in March 2009. They left behind some 20,000 metric tonnes of food whose delivery the United States planned to monitor.
King said that the United States would insist on strict guidelines if it decided to send food aid, including sending Korean-speaking US supervisors and not delivering all of the assistance in bulk.
"The kinds of food we provide would be the kinds of foods that are less desirable for the elite, for the military. For example, we would not provide rice," King told the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
"We would focus on some kind of nutrition program to provide other kinds of food that would be harder to divert," King said.
But King said that close ally South Korea voiced opposition during talks with the United States.
South Korean officials have charged that North Korea is exaggerating its woes to foreign visitors in hopes of winning food aid, possibly to distribute during mass celebrations next year marking the 100th birth anniversary of the regime`s founder Kim Il-Sung.
A number of conservative US lawmakers share the concerns and have urged President Barack Obama not to authorise food assistance.
"It should be clear that there would be strong opposition in the Congress to any attempt to provide food assistance paid for by the American taxpayer for more bread and circuses in Pyongyang," said Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
But US relief groups that previously delivered US aid have voiced fear that parts of North Korea will run out of food in mid-June. Hundreds of thousands of North Koreans died in a famine in the 1990s.
Samaritan`s Purse, a Christian-oriented group that was among five organisations that visited North Korea in February, has said that a harsh winter reduced crop yield and some people were already eating grass.
Former president Jimmy Carter after a trip to North Korea also called for the aid and said the United States and South Korea were committing a "human rights violation" for, in his view, withholding food for political reasons.
Obama, despite his support for dialogue with US foes, has stood firm against talks with North Korea until it clearly commits to reducing tensions with South Korea and giving up its nuclear program.