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State Department dismisses Carter charges on North Korean food aid

By Jill Dougherty and Chelsea J. Carter, CNN
  • Jimmy Carter accused the U.S. and South Korea of withholding food aide for North Korea
  • The State Department dismisses the former president's comments
  • North Korea is responsible for its plight, a State Department official says
  • A U.N. agency announces emergency food aid to 3.5 million starving North Koreans

Washington (CNN) -- The U.S. State Department on Friday refuted charges by former President Jimmy Carter that the United States and South Korea were withholding food aid from North Korea for political motives.

The blame for North Korea's food shortage belongs to the North Korean government, a State Department official said.

The State Department's response came the same day that the United Nations World Food Programme announced plans to begin emergency food distribution to 3.5 million North Koreans, primarily women and children, who are starving after a harsh winter decimated crops.

Carter rankled U.S. officials this week after accusing the United States and South Korea of human rights violations by withholding food aide. He made the comments at the end of a three-day visit to the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, a visit that had been intended to promote north-south dialogue on the Korean peninsula, revive a denuclearization process and assess food shortages.

"As you know well, the North Koreans were the ones who abruptly suspended the aid program in 2009, ordering our humanitarian personnel to leave the country and leave behind 20,000 metric tons of U.S. food," the State Department's Director of Policy Planning, Jacob Sullivan, told reporters in Washington.

"Everyone should remember who is responsible for the plight of the North Korean people, and that is the North Korean government itself."

The U.S. suspended aid two years ago to North Korea because it suspected the donated food was being diverted to the military or not reaching those most in need.

Washington and Pyongyang have no diplomatic relations, and North and South Korea have no formal ties and remain technically in a state of war since a 1953 truce that ended the Korean War.

Sullivan dismissed reports from Carter that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il is prepared for a summit directly with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak at any time to discuss issues between the two heads of state and for the resumption of so-called six-party talks that ended in 2009 when North Korea walked away from negotiations over its nuclear program.

"We believe that North Korea has to take meaningful steps to improve inter-Korean relations, that North-South talks are an important opportunity for the North to demonstrate its sincerity for dialogue and to take tangible steps to improve North-South relations," Sullivan said. "We've also consistently said we don't believe in talks just for the sake of talking."

Sullivan said the former president was traveling in the capacity of a private citizen, not as a representative of the U.S. government, and has been in contact with U.S. officials, as he normally is after such trips, upon his return.

While North Korea has refused to return to the table for the six-party talks, it reportedly began quietly reaching out to food aid agencies earlier this.

North Korea has been plagued by famine for years and unable to feed its 25 million people. The country lost a million people to famine in the 1990s.

A report earlier this year by aid agencies, who were invited to North Korea, found that the food shortage was so severe that North Koreans were being forced to forage for wild grasses and herbs to stay alive.

The U.N. agency's food program survey of North Korea found that there was "a serious deterioration in the health of millions of people who are already struggling to feed themselves."

"With government rations currently providing only about half of the people's daily food needs, some families are already resorting to negative survival strategies, including cutting down on the size and number of meals," Amir Abdulla, the deputy executive director and chief operating officer of the U.N.'s World Food Programme.

Abdulla said the U.N. agency is instituting strict monitoring of the $200 million in planned food distribution to make sure it ends up in the hands of those who need it most.