U.S. officials say food aid to North Korea could resume depending on whether Pyongyang can provide the necessary monitoring assurances in talks between the sides that began Thursday in Beijing.
The United Nations and U.S. charities say aid is badly needed, but the U.S. government is concerned that North Korea, which has plowed resources into a nuclear weapons program, could divert food aid to political elites and its vast military.
U.S. special envoy for North Korean human rights issues Robert King and senior U.S. aid official Jon Brause met Thursday with North Korea's director-general for American affairs, Ri Gun.
The talks are expected to last at least two days and are to focus on strict monitoring mechanisms should the U.S. decide to give aid.
The last U.S. food handouts ended in March 2009, when North Korea expelled U.S. aid groups that were monitoring the distribution. That occurred shortly before the North conducted long-range rocket and nuclear tests that drew stiff international sanctions.
North Korea has appealed for food aid, but its state media has not commented on the talks.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Wednesday that the aid could include vitamin supplements and high-protein biscuits for malnourished people in addition to regular food.
Such items would be unlikely to end up "on some leader's banquet table," Nuland said.
"They (North Korean officials) know that we were obviously deeply dissatisfied with the way this went before and that we need more discussions about it," Nuland told a news conference.
Some aid groups also have urged that flour be provided rather than more desirable rice, which they say is routinely siphoned off and provided to the regime's most loyal backers in the cities.
The U.N. reported last month that North Korea had an improved harvest this year despite a harsh winter and summer floods, but that malnutrition among children has increased. It said nearly 3 million people will continue to require food assistance next year.
North Korea has suffered chronic food shortages for the past two decades because of a combination of economic and agricultural mismanagement and natural disasters. It suffered a famine in the 1990s that killed hundreds of thousands of people.
King visited North Korea in May accompanied by a food assessment team from the U.S. Agency for International Development. The findings of the mission were not made public.
This week's aid discussions come as expectations grow that the U.S. could hold a new round of talks with North Korea on its nuclear program. There have been two rounds since July, a possible prelude to a resumption of China-sponsored six-nation disarmament-for-aid talks that have been in limbo since 2009.
In Beijing for talks with Chinese officials, new U.S. envoy on North Korean affairs Glyn Davies said it was up to North Korea to create the conditions for new bilateral discussions.
"We need them to provide the right assurances, the right signals, at which point, and it could be at some point soon, I'm not certain, no crystal ball, we'll be able to get back to them for a third round," Davies told reporters following his meetings.
He said his talks with Chinese officials centered on how to restart the six-nation talks in a way that produces solid progress "so that we don't find ourselves in a situation similar to what we've had before where we've gone into talks and they haven't ultimately borne fruit."
North Korea says it is willing to restart the six-nation talks without preconditions, but the U.S. and its allies want the North to first take concrete action to show it is sincere, such as by freezing uranium enrichment and allowing in international monitors.
Last week, Davies said the United States is "not interested in talks for talks' sake." He didn't elaborate.