Relief workers distributing thousands of tons of U.S.-supplied food in North Korea have unprecedented freedom of access in the insular country to ensure the food goes to the people who need it, says the project's chief U.S. negotiator.
Nevertheless, said Jon Brause of the U.S. Agency for International Development, the newfound North Korean openness has nothing to do with drawn-out political negotiations that led Kim Jong Il's government to move toward eliminating its nuclear weapons program.
The first shipment of grain under the aid agreement, 37,000 tons of wheat, arrived Sunday, two days after North Korea destroyed part of its main nuclear reactor site. Many news reports linked the two events, but Brause said in an interview Tuesday that the juxtaposition was a coincidence.
The agreement to provide food aid was signed at the beginning of May. "We actually bought the commodities in the middle of May. The ship sailed 20-some days ago from the Pacific Northwest," he said.
Everything was signed except the agreement between North Korea and the World Food Program and the five U.S.-based non-governmental organizations participating with the United Nations agency to carry out the program.
"As the ship neared North Korea," Brause said, "the agreement with the NGOs and the WFP had not been signed by the government, and there was some indication that they may not be signed." The ship slowed and did not return to its previous heading until June 27, Brause said.
"I just want to be clear that had the agreements not been signed, the ship probably would not have arrived," he said.
Asked whether the North Koreans also considered the potential nuclear agreement separate from the food aid startup, Brause said: "I can't tell you what's going through their minds. I imagine there's some calculus on their part. I just want you to know that sort of the calculus on our part is there no relationship — I shouldn't say no relationship — there is no conditionality associated with the humanitarian program, or nothing to tie it to the nuclear program.
"And I was in all the negotiations and all the discussions, and so I can pretty much tell you that is the case."
In all, the U.S.-sponsored program is to feed through the NGOs about 550,000 people, mostly children, the elderly and pregnant and nursing women, in two North Korean provinces, said a release from Mercy Corps, one of the five. The others are World Vision, Samaritan's Purse, Global Resource Services and Christian Friends of Korea.
The World Food Program will distribute another 400,000 metric tons in other parts of the country. The United States is the largest donor for the WFP's current aid program in Korea at $38.9 million.
The United States has sent food before to North Korea, but always under much more constrained conditions. Brause said the first time the United States sought to negotiate conditions similar to these, in 2004, "I met with them in New York, and they said, 'No, thanks.'"