The United States was poised to announce a significant donation of food aid to North Korea this week before the nation announced the death of supreme leader Kim Jong Il. The donation, which could now be delayed, would be the first concrete accomplishment after months of behind-the-scenes diplomatic contacts between the two wartime enemies. An agreement by North Korea to suspend its controversial uranium enrichment program would have likely followed within days.
A broad outline of the emerging agreement has been made known to The Associated Press by people close to the negotiations.
Discussions had been taking place since summer in New York, Geneva and Beijing. They already have yielded agreements by North Korea to suspend nuclear and ballistic missile testing, readmit international nuclear inspectors expelled in 2009, and resume a dialogue between North Korea and South Korea, according to the people, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of sensitivity of the negotiations.
The Obama administration had been expected to decide on the North Korean issues this week, possibly as early as Monday, but the officials said Kim's death would likely delay the process. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the situation. They said the U.S. was particularly concerned about any changes that Kim's death might spark in the military postures of North and South Korea but were hopeful that calm would prevail.
Suspension of uranium enrichment by North Korea had been a key outstanding demand from both the U.S. and South Korea of the North, which has tested two atomic devices in the past five years. Food talks in Beijing yielded a breakthrough on uranium enrichment, they said.
An announcement of the food aid not only would be welcome news for North Korea, but also pave the way for another crucial U.S.-North Korea meeting in Beijing on Thursday. That meeting in turn could lead within weeks to the resumption of nuclear disarmament talks that would also include China, Japan, Russia and South Korea.
The so-called six-party talks were last held three years ago, and resuming them would amount to a foreign policy coup for the Obama administration.
The U.S. would provide 240,000 tons of high-protein biscuits and vitamins — 20,000 tons a month for a year — but not much-wanted rice, according to reports in the South Korean media. It would be the first food aid from the U.S. in nearly three years.
Negotiators have sought for two decades to convince North Korea to dismantle its plutonium-producing nuclear reactor at Yongbyon, which the government insists exists to generate much-needed power. But plutonium can be used to make atomic bombs, and North Korea also stands by its right to develop missiles to defend itself against the nuclear-armed United States.
In 2009, North Korea tested a missile capable of reaching U.S. shores, earning widespread condemnation and strengthened U.N. sanctions. An incensed North Korea, which insisted the rocket launch was designed to send a satellite into space, walked away from ongoing nuclear disarmament talks in protest.
In the weeks that followed, North Korea tested a nuclear device and announced it would begin enriching uranium, which would give it a second way to make atomic weapons.
"North Korea's disclosure of a uranium enrichment program was bait" for negotiations and aid, said Jeung Young-tae, an analyst with the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul. "And the United States grabbed that bait."
With little arable land and outdated agricultural practices, North Korea has long struggled to feed its people. Flooding and a harsh winter further destroyed crops. The World Food Program issued a plea earlier this year for $218 million in humanitarian help to feed the most vulnerable.
As donations trickled in, Washington deliberated for months on whether to contribute food aid.
Then, in July, U.S. and North Korean negotiators met in New York, and again in Geneva in November. Two days of discussion on food aid in Beijing led to this week's expected announcement of a food-aid package.
This diplomatic dance has unfolded as North Korea prepares for several milestone events for its citizens: the 100th anniversary of the April 1912 birth of President Kim Il Sung, who is officially regarded as the nation's "eternal president" long after his death, and a movement to prepare Kim Jong Un, son of current leader Kim Jong Il, to become the next ruler. And now, North Korea will hold a national mourning period for Kim Jong Il until Dec. 29. Kim's funeral will be held on Dec. 28.
A peace treaty with the U.S. to formally end the Korean War and ensure stability on the Korean peninsula has remained a key goal for the North Korean leadership. The war that erupted in 1950 was suspended with an armistice in 1953, but tensions on the Korean peninsula have remained high ever since.
A technical state of war remains, and the U.S. maintains a garrison of 28,500 troops in South Korea to protect its ally against aggression.
More recently, the deadly March 2010 sinking of a South Korean warship and a November 2010 artillery attack on a front-line South Korean island populated by civilians only deepened tensions between North Korea and the West.
Besides a food aid deal, another tangible sign of diplomatic progress has been North Korea's recent willingness to discuss letting U.S. military officials into North Korea to recover remains of U.S. servicemen killed — a project suspended by Washington in 2005. North Korea has agreed to allow a first U.S. team into the country in the spring, officials said.
But overlying all of this is a desire by the U.S. and its allies to restart nuclear disarmament negotiations.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Friday that there was no announcement yet on food aid or further U.S. talks with North Korea.
However, those with knowledge of the negotiations told the AP an announcement was expected as soon as Monday, and would include a provision for better monitoring of food distribution to allay concerns that aid meant for the most needy is diverted to North Korea's powerful military.
Nuland, who has said the government wants to ensure the food goes to the needy, "not to the regime, and not to go locked up in storehouses," has said the food in question is better characterized as "nutritional assistance."
"When you think about food, you think about sacks of rice, cans of food, things that might easily be diverted to the wrong purpose," she said Thursday.
"When you talk about nutritional assistance, it could be that, but it could also be things like vitamin supplements to populations in need, like women and children; it could be high protein biscuits or other things." The concern, she said, is that items intended for starving women and children "not find themselves on some leader's banquet table."
Associated Press writers Matthew Lee in Washington, D.C., and Hyung-jin Kim in Seoul, South Korea, contributed to this report. Follow Jean H. Lee, AP's Korea bureau chief, on Twitter at twitter.com/newsjean.