By Andrew Quinn
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States said on Friday it was worried about North Korea's food crisis but that it had made no decision on resuming aid because of concerns over whether the help will truly reach the needy.
"The United States remains deeply concerned about the well-being of the North Korean people. We take this issue very seriously," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in a statement.
Nuland said, however, that North Korea still had to address U.S. concerns over monitoring of aid shipments following charges that North Korea's isolated communist government had diverted past food deliveries for its own use.
"Any decision will be based on legitimate humanitarian needs, competing needs elsewhere, and our ability to ensure that aid is reliably reaching the people in need," Nuland said.
"We continue to analyze the results of the field team's assessment and are closely monitoring the food situation."
Nuland spoke following a Reuters special report on North Korea's food crisis that detailed worsening conditions in southwestern South Hwanghae province, the country's main rice-producing region.
North Korea's appeals for food aid have gone largely unanswered by the international community, which has met only 30 percent of a United Nations food target for the country.
North Korea, one of the world's most unpredictable countries, saw relations with the United States and South Korea nose-dive after talks aimed at disabling Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program collapsed more than two years ago.
North Korea has expressed interest in resuming the talks -- which also involve China, Japan and Russia -- but Washington and Seoul say they have yet to see concrete evidence Pyongyang is ready to talk seriously about its nuclear program.
The United States in August offered North Korea up to $900,000 in emergency assistance to cope with serious flooding, but U.S. officials said this consisted largely of supplies such as plastic sheeting and tents that carried less risk of government diversion.
The United States has been considering North Korea's request for humanitarian food aid and in May sent a team to assess the country's needs after a United Nations report said millions were going hungry due to bad harvests.
The last U.S. food aid program for North Korea in 2008-2009 was suspended amid a dispute over monitoring, and the United States has indicated it will only resume aid if agreed by North Korea's traditional foe South Korea, which has been skeptical of Pyongyang's latest food appeals.
U.S.-based nongovernmental organizations involved in prior food relief efforts for North Korea have expressed frustration over the slow pace of U.S. decision-making, saying their assessment of North Korea's food crisis indicated a wider disaster in the offing.
Jim White, vice president for operations at Mercy Corps, which led the consortium of U.S. NGOs involved in the last U.S. food aid program, said a recent trip to North Korea showed conditions getting worse.
"We definitely saw evidence at that time of both significant chronic malnutrition but also a heightening number of acute malnutrition cases," White told Reuters.
"Humanitarian assistance should be completely separated from the politics on whether or not a country is favorable to other countries in the world. We feel it is important that these people get food," he said.
The U.N.' Food and Agriculture Organization said in August that July flooding in North Korea had caused localized damage to the 2011 crop, but the extent of the damage still needed to be assessed.
The FAO, working with the U.N.'s World Food Program, has sent a new assessment team to North Korea and is expected to issue a report in November that will assess the 2011 main-crop harvest and estimate cereal import requirements for 2011/12, including impacts of the floods and food assistance needs.
(editing by Philip Barbara)