The United Nations said Monday it had begun a new assessment of impoverished North Korea's food needs and planned more than 300,000 tons of humanitarian assistance, as an influential Republican senator warned the Obama administration against resuming such aid to the communist nation without adequate monitoring.
Sen. Richard Lugar, the leading Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said any resumption should depend on ensuring that aid gets to hungry civilians rather than to the military, "whose care is already a priority over the rest of the population."
North Korea suffered a famine during the 1990s and still struggles to feed its people. It reportedly has asked the United States and other nations to consider resuming food aid. U.S. handouts were suspended in 2009 after monitors of its distribution were expelled.
Lugar said the Obama administration was reviewing the North Korean requests.
The government has yet to confirm that. U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said it was monitoring the situation in the North closely, but he said had not heard of any plan to resume food aid.
On Feb. 10, the U.N. World Food Program and Food and Agriculture Organization began a joint mission to assess food needs in the North, World Food Program spokeswoman in New York Bettina Luescher said. The United Nations is planning more than 300,000 tons in humanitarian assistance, Luescher said.
"The government of the DPRK has informed WFP that further assistance is needed as the current severe winter is expected to have an impact on the early spring harvest. The recent vegetable harvest was also lower than expected," Luescher told The Associated Press, referring to the communist nation's formal title, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
North Korea's state media reported last week that foot-and-mouth disease has spread across the country, and thousands of livestock, including cows and pigs, have died.
The U.N. assessment is initially being conducted by local staff in North Korea. International staff from Rome and Bangkok will arrive Feb. 20, Luescher said, adding that the mission will continue until March 6.
The United States is likely to be cautious about restarting food aid. Besides suspicions about its distribution, the Obama administration would be leery of the perception that it is rewarding a government accused of two deadly, unprovoked military attacks on U.S. ally South Korea in the past year. The North also recently revealed it had developed a new means of generating fissile material that might be used for a nuclear bomb.
Multinational talks aimed at ending the North's nuclear weapons program in return for aid have been suspended since 2009. Last week, military-to-military talks between the two Koreas collapsed soon after they began.