North Koreans gather before a statue of late leader Kim Il Sung in Pyongyang… (Korean Central News Agency )
Reporting from Seoul —
In mid-December, U.S. negotiators came the closest they'd come in two years to resuming humanitarian food aid for millions of undernourished North Koreans.
They pressed North Korean officials in Beijing one day for assurances that any assistance would not be siphoned off by the North's military. In return, experts say, Washington hoped to draw the government in Pyongyang back to negotiations over an uranium enrichment program North Korea revealed to outsiders in 2010.
The next day, Dec. 17, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il died of a heart attack, casting developments into limbo as his youngest son, Kim Jong Un, 28, assumed control of the repressive regime.
More than a month later, the U.S. remains cautious about the potential changes in Pyongyang's relationship with the international community, experts say. North Korea, meanwhile, is ready to receive much-needed aid from elsewhere.
Both China and South Korea have made overtures to help North Korea combat the famine and malnutrition that have followed years of failed policies and international sanctions.
The South Korean government last week approved the first shipment of food aid to the North since Kim's death, giving the go-ahead for a nonprofit group to provide 180 tons of flour to elementary schools and daycare centers. The food is scheduled to ship this month.
Days earlier,Seoul'snew unification minister, Yu Woo-ik, had said officials would provide large-scale food aid even if Pyongyang did not apologize for two deadly military attacks in 2010, reversing the government's previous stance.
China, North Korea's staunchest ally, suggested it would also provide hundreds of thousands of tons of food aid, calling for other nations to do the same. "We want the international community to offer aid to North Korea, just like China" is doing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said recently.
North Korea experts say they expect Washington to work out its own food aid deal regardless of concern about Pyongyang's development of nuclear weapons.
In November 2010, North Korea unveiled to a visiting team of former U.S. officials and academics a large uranium-enrichment plant that was making low-level reactor fuel but could be converted to produce highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons. North Korea now appears prepared to discontinue the program in exchange for an estimated 240,000 tons of U.S. food assistance, experts say.
Several nonprofit organizations whose representatives visited North Korea last year reported that as many as a quarter of the nation's 24 million residents required urgent food aid.
"The ball is in North Korea's court; they asked to postpone the negotiations when Kim Jong Il died," said Ralph A. Cossa, president of Pacific Forum CSIS, a Honolulu-based think tank.
In 2008, the U.S. pledged 500,000 tons of rice to North Korea but discontinued the aid program the following year amid suspicion that the food was going to the military. Now Washington is offering high-energy biscuits and vitamin supplements, less likely targets for soldiers and elites.
A recent statement by North Korea's state-run news service criticized Washington for changing the nature of its promised aid. But Pyongyang also left the door open to seal the pending aid deal, adding, "We will watch if the U.S. truly wants to build confidence."
Some experts said they don't expect U.S. food assistance to result in improved relations with Pyongyang for the long term. Kim Jong Un might still try to rally military support in the secretive regime through a nuclear missile test or attack against Seoul, experts said. And even if the North Koreans agree to close known uranium enrichment sites, there are probably other facilities that will remain open.
The Obama administration wants to secure a food deal that won't backfire, said Daniel Pinkston, Northeast Asia deputy project director for the International Crisis Group, a nonprofit organization.
"Obama can't take the risk of a North Korean nuclear test a month before the election," Pinkston said.