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Saturday, May 17, 2008 - Page updated at 01:05 AM

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North Korea welcomes US food aid offer

SEOUL, South Korea —

North Korea welcomed on Saturday a U.S. offer of food aid, saying the assistance would help alleviate shortages and improve relations between the two countries.

The U.S. State Department said Friday it would provide 500,000 tons of food to North Korea. The decision came amid progress in their nuclear negotiations, although Washington said the assistance was not related to that issue.

"The food aid of the U.S. government will help settle the food shortage in (North Korea) to a certain extent and contribute to promoting the understanding and confidence between the peoples of the two countries," the country's official Korean Central News Agency said.

North Korea is "ready to provide all technical conditions necessary for the food delivery," KCNA said.

The aid announcement came about a week after North Korea handed a massive amount of nuclear data over to Washington under a disarmament deal last year. That accord calls for North Korea to give up its nuclear programs in exchange for economic and political rewards.

The disarmament process has picked up pace after the U.S. and North Korea reached a compromise last month in a dispute over the North's obligation to fully account for its past nuclear activities.

The United States last provided food aid to North Korea in 2005. Further deliveries fell apart in a dispute over a U.S. demand for close involvement in how the aid got distributed. Washington wants assurances the food is not diverted to the military or to other improper use.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the sides "agreed on terms for a substantial improvement in monitoring and access in order to allow for confirmation of receipt by the intended recipients."

North Korea has relied on foreign assistance to feed its 23 million people since natural disasters and mismanagement devastated its economy in the mid-1990s.

Its current food situation has worsened because of devastating floods last year. North Korea has also refused to ask for help from South Korea, a previous large aid donor, because of anger over its new government's hard-line stance toward the North.

The U.N. World Food Program warned last month that North Korea faces a food crisis, saying its annual food deficit is expected to nearly double over 2007 to 1.83 million tons. The agency estimated 6.5 million people were short of food, and said that number could rise if aid was not provided.

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