The U.S. is considering resumption of food aid to North Korea amid fears people there could starve after a harsh winter, top officials said Tuesday.
Special envoy Stephen Bosworth told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the U.S. is assessing the need for assistance after the reclusive Asian nation requested it.
The U.S. government suspended food handouts to the impoverished North in 2009 after monitors were expelled. A resumption would be politically sensitive because of concerns it could be seen as a reward for bad behavior.
In the past year, Pyongyang has been accused of launching two unprovoked military attacks on rival South Korea, and has revealed a uranium enrichment program that could provide it a new means of generating material for nuclear weapons.
The top U.S. diplomat for East Asia, Kurt Campbell, told lawmakers that no decision has yet been made about resuming aid and that it would be made in close coordination with South Korea.
Asked whether food aid could ultimately ease economic pressure on the North, effectively allowing it put more resources into its nuclear programs, Campbell said North Korea had historically shown it was willing to allow "enormous suffering" among its people, noting that many starved during the 1990s.
"The choice here is whether these people are allowed to starve. It's a humanitarian issue, not a political one," he said.
Five nongovernment U.S.-based aid groups who visited North Korea last month reported children suffering from acute malnutrition and people foraging for wild grasses and herbs. Summer floods and the bitterest winter in decades cut key crop harvests by more than half, and North Korean authorities estimated that food stocks would be exhausted by mid-June, the groups said.
The United Nations, which has an ongoing but underfunded food distribution program in North Korea, is also conducting a food needs assessment there.
Bosworth said if U.S. assistance were resumed, effective monitoring would ensure it reached civilians who most need it _ amid concerns food could be diverted to the military.
Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., the Foreign Relations Committee chairman, called for the U.S. to launch bilateral talks with North Korea _ long sought by the North _ to lay the groundwork for the resumption of six-nation talks aimed at dismantling the communist nation's nuclear programs.
The talks, also including China, South Korea, Japan and Russia, have stalled since 2009. The North pulled out over international censure of a long-range rocket test that was followed by a nuclear test, which left it subject to stiff U.N. sanctions. However, the North has since said it wants to resume the negotiations.
"Our silence invites a dangerous situation to get worse," Kerry said.
South Korea and the U.S. have said the North must first demonstrate its sincerity by taking concrete actions, including accepting responsibility for the sinking of a South Korean submarine that killed 46 sailors and a November artillery strike that left four people dead on a South Korean island.
On Tuesday, South Korea's President Lee Myung-bak called for serious talks with the North, warning that the rivals must not repeat their "dark history," but also saying that the North should abandon its nuclear programs.
Bosworth said the U.S. was not "interested in talks for the sake of talking. We want talks that lead to concrete results." He did concede, however, that the U.S. may need to hold "bilateral conversations" with the North in order to figure out how to move forward multilaterally.