WASHINGTON (Reuters) - As part of its delicate nuclear dance with Pyongyang, the United States on Wednesday unveiled what officials said would be a distinctly new food aid program that would be strictly monitored to ensure the food gets to the isolated country's neediest citizens.
U.S. officials said the proposed aid package would total 240,000 metric tones per year, with monthly deliveries of corn-soy blend, vegetable oil and therapeutic foods such as nutritionally enhanced peanut paste intended primarily for young children and pregnant women.
"This will be the most comprehensively monitored and managed program since the U.S. began assistance to the DRPK in the mid-1990s," one senior U.S. official said.
"We're ready to meet as soon as we can iron out the timing and the location for that next meeting," the official said. "That's not finalized at this moment but there are no plans to delay. We're ready to go."
Still, details of the program remain murky, and it could run afoul of complicated diplomacy as Pyongyang moves to impose a nuclear moratorium in hopes of resuming broader aid-for-disarmament talks which collapsed in 2008.
"Before any assistance program could begin, we have to reach agreement on monitoring mechanisms to ensure that the food is reaching the people that we intend it for," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told a Congressional panel.
"That will be our responsibility to try to set up those mechanisms and to be as sure as we can be that its going to be put to the right use."
U.S. officials have repeatedly said there is no link between the food aid and the nuclear issue, maintaining that decisions on humanitarian assistance are independent of political factors.
In this case, however, Pyongyang made the link, seeking food in return for conceding to a nuclear moratorium.
"We haven't done but the North has, because I think they take a very transactional approach to this stuff," said a U.S. official.
North Korea suffered a crippling famine in the 1990s that killed an estimated one million people, and has since endured chronic food shortages caused in part by sanctions imposed over its nuclear and missile programs.
The problems grew worse in 2008-09 when the United States and South Korea suspended their food assistance efforts following a dispute over transparency and monitoring.
Pyongyang has repeatedly requested that food aid resume, but until recently it had imposed conditions that were unacceptable to the United States, U.S. officials said.
"They demanded large quantities of rice and gain that could be, in our view, diverted to elites or to the military. They've now dropped those demands and agreed to allow our program to move forward as proposed," another senior U.S. official said.
Officials say the new U.S. program will be aimed at combating chronic malnutrition rather than delivering emergency food supplies, saying repeated surveys indicate food shortages in several parts of North Korea had led to widespread malnutrition among children.
"We have said that our partner organizations will have to be fully operational, meaning fully in place on the ground with their offices functioning before the food will begin to arrive," the first U.S. official said.
"We need to ensure the program addresses the needs of the targeted groups and is something that we can justify and defend here in the United States."
Bonnie Glaser, an Asia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the United States hoped to have aid flowing within six to eight weeks but still needed to nail down monitoring conditions.
"They have already had fairly extensive negotiations with the North Koreans on this, and seem to be fairly confident that this is going to go smoothly," she said.
Aid groups that have helped implement earlier U.S. food assistance programs for North Korea have said they could get a credible program up and running swiftly if given the green light.
The NGOs say they have been able to operate with Korean-speaking staff on the ground, track aid deliveries and make spot checks as long as they give officials 24 hours notice, reducing concerns of aid diversion.
Reporting By Andrew Quinn. Editing by Warren Strobel and Christopher Wilson