The United States appears poised to announce a significant donation of food aid to North Korea this week, the first concrete accomplishment after months of secretive diplomatic contacts between the two wartime enemies.
Discussions have been taking place since summer in New York, Geneva and Beijing. They are believed to have revolved around a possible deal in which the U.S. would offer food assistance, and North Korea would suspend its controversial uranium enrichment program and readmit international nuclear inspectors expelled in 2009, according to diplomats and outside observers close to the negotiations.
The announcement of the food aid, expected to take place in Washington, not only would be welcome news for the food-poor nation, but would likely herald a new round of discussions about North Korea's wider nuclear program and its relationship with the West.
Suspension of enrichment by North Korea would satisfy a key demand from both the U.S. and South Korea that the North, which has tested two atomic devices in the past five years, prove its commitment to denuclearization before any further discussions.
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, when enriched, 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With little arable land and outdated agricultural practices, North Korea has long struggled to feed its people.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 last week in Beijing led up to this week's expected announcement of a food-aid package.
This diplomatic dance has unfolded as North Korea prepares for two 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.
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.
But overlying all of this is a desire by the U.S. and its allies to restart nuclear disarmament negotiations.
A crucial and groundbreaking next round of U.S.-North Korean talks appears imminent, and is expected to be followed by an announcement that denuclearization talks will resume within weeks — a possible foreign policy coup for the Obama administration.
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 Associated Press an announcement was expected soon, 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 confirmed that 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 writer 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.