PYONGYANG, North Korea, May 25 (UPI) -- U.S. human rights envoy Robert King has begun a weeklong visit to North Korea to assess the country's food shortage and a possible resumption of U.S. food aid.
King, the first U.S. official to visit North Korea in 17 months -- and the first by a human rights envoy since 2004 -- arrived to little fanfare.
The secretive Pyongyang government's official news organization, the Korea Central News Agency, announced the arrival of King and five other officials with a one-sentence statement.
"A delegation of the U.S. Department of State led by Robert King, Special Envoy for Human Rights and Humanitarian Issues, arrived here to consult humanitarian issues between the (Democratic People's Republic of Korea) and the U.S.," the KCNA's report said.
King and his delegation will look at whether the United States should resume it food aid program to North Korea.
He is to remain in Pyongyang until at least the weekend, although some of the delegation may stay longer if they decide to travel to remote parts of the country, which is still technically at war with South Korea after signing a cease-fire in 1953.
King has been highly critical of North Korea's record on human rights. In January last year, during his first trip to Seoul after being confirmed by the U.S. Senate in his post, King said the North was "one of the worst places in terms of the lack of human rights."
He also said human rights issues will play a part in any agreement with the United States.
The World Food Program estimates 6 million North Koreans suffer food shortages.
U.S. food aid to North Korea was suspended in March 2009 after a disagreement over the monitoring of food aid that was arriving in North Korea. The United States was concerned the food may not have been getting to the people who most need it and into the hands of black marketers and corrupt officials.
U.S. State Department spokesman Robert Wood said at the time that North Korea informed the United States that it doesn't wish to receive additional U.S. food assistance.
"We will work with U.S. (non-governmental organizations) and the North Korean counterparts to ensure that food that's already in North Korea is distributed to the intended recipients," Wood said.
The United States delivered 169,000 tons of food to North Korea in 2008 and 2009, Wood said. The last shipment of U.S. aid, which was nearly 5,000 tons of vegetable oil and corn soy blend, arrived in the North in late January 2009.
A year before, South Korea stopped its annual aid of 400,000 tons of rice but it has allowed civic groups to send smaller quantities of humanitarian and medical assistance.
The food aid program is a sensitive political topic in South Korea, with some civic and religious groups calling for the government to resume the aid and expand it.
A decision by the U.S. government on resuming food aid could come within days.
"We will be making a decision on that over the next few days," U.S. Envoy to South Korea Stephen Bosworth said.
Bosworth was speaking during his three-day visit to South Korea last week when he met Wi Sung-lac, South Korea's special representative for Korean Peninsula Peace and Security Affairs.
"We had a good discussion today on the North Korean request for food assistance and I think we have largely reached a common view on that and we are addressing that as we move ahead," Bosworth said.