US lawmakers oppose North Korea aid
Washington - Several Republican lawmakers urged US President Barack Obama's administration Thursday to deny North Korea's request for food aid, fearing it would bolster Kim Jong-Il's regime.
Hundreds of thousands of North Koreans died in a famine in the 1990s and US aid groups said in February that the communist country was again experiencing severe food shortages, in part due to a poor harvest.
Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, who took up the helm of the House Foreign Affairs Committee after Obama's Democrats lost elections in 2010, said she had "grave concerns" about North Korea's intentions in the food request.
"Fast approaching is the 100th anniversary next year of the birth of Kim Jong-Il's father and there is the danger that aid provided would be diverted for this spectacle," she said at a congressional hearing.
Ros-Lehtinen also called for an accounting of how North Korea distributed previous US food aid left over when the regime booted out non-governmental organisations in 2009.
Another Republican, Representative Ed Royce of California, quoted defectors and a non-governmental group as saying that international food assistance went to feed the regime and its military rather than the impoverished populace.
"Believe me, they're not asking for food to help the starving," Royce said. "It's really hard arguing that our aid doesn't support this brutal regime and, secondly, doesn't support its nuclear weapons drive."
"I think the administration is on the wrong course in this request for food aid to North Korea," he said.
But Representative Chris Smith, a Republican active on human rights issues, voiced support for food assistance, pointing to North Korea's alarming levels of stunted growth among children and malnutrition-linked tuberculosis.
"I would hope as long as there's very good monitoring to ensure that those highly at risk get the food, this ought to be done yesterday," the New Jersey congressman said.
Representative Howard Berman of California, the top Democrat on the panel, also appeared open to food aid.
"We should make every effort to provide humanitarian assistance and food aid to the North Korean people, but we should insist on adequate monitoring to ensure that such aid is not diverted or misused," he said.
The Obama administration says it has not yet decided whether to provide food aid and would want close monitoring of any assistance.
Despite a policy of global engagement, the administration has refused to restart talks with North Korea until it clearly recommits to giving up nuclear weapons and works to ease tensions with the democratic South.
South Korea's JoongAng Ilbo newspaper reported this week that North Korea was so desperate for food that it was even seeking aid from some of the world's poorest nations such as Zimbabwe.
Victor Cha, who was former president George W Bush's top adviser on North Korea, defended a 2008 agreement on US food aid as providing access to most parts of the country.
"My own view is that if they are willing to agree to the same terms as they did in 2008, that was a good agreement," said Cha, now a scholar at Georgetown University and the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.
"All these bags go into the country with the American flag on it and in Korean it says, 'Gift from the American people'. So that is not a bad thing for us in North Korea," he told the hearing.
Bruce Klingner, a senior research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said North Korea had a clear need for aid but that it was difficult to make the case to focus finite resources on Pyongyang and not countries with better records.
"Humanitarian aid is supposed to be divorced from politics, but we can't overlook some other factors - North Korea's actions," he said.