SEOUL, South Korea Thousands of tons of food from the U.S. has started flowing into North Korea, the U.N. food agency said Monday, as aid groups warned that the impoverished nation faces food shortages not seen since 2001.
A freighter carrying 37,000 tons of wheat arrived Sunday night after North Korea agreed to open up to greatly expanded international aid. The shipment was the first installment of 500,000 tons in assistance promised by Washington, the World Food Program said.
The aid, however, was not directly related to the ongoing nuclear talks between Washington and Pyongyang. U.S. officials have repeatedly said they do not use food for diplomatic coercion.
The shipment arrived just days after the North delivered an atomic declaration and blew up the cooling tower at its main reactor site, in a sign of its commitment not to make more plutonium for bombs.
In exchange, the U.S. lifted some economic sanctions and said it would remove the country from a list of state sponsors of terrorism.
State Department spokesman Tom Casey said there was "zero linkage" between progress on nuclear talks and the food delivery's timing. He said the U.S. has spent months working with the WFP to make sure food delivery could be properly monitored.
"We do not link food assistance, whether that's to North Korea or Zimbabwe or any other country, to political considerations. We do that based on humanitarian concerns," Casey said.
Sunday's wheat shipment will be enough for the WFP to expand its operations to feed more than 5 million people, up from 1.2 million people now getting international aid. The WFP hopes to start distributing the U.S.-provided food within two weeks.
U.N. agencies are conducting a food survey expected to be completed in mid-July to determine where to distribute the aid, but the WFP said preliminary reports "indicate a high level of food insecurity."
The country's regular annual shortages were expected to worsen because of floods last summer that devastated the agricultural heartland. The U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization has said North Korea's cereal crop will fall more than 1.5 million tons short this year, the largest food deficit since 2001.
Prices at the country's limited markets where North Koreans who can afford it shop when public rations fall short have skyrocketed due to shortages.
"Even if the situation is not dramatic right now, it could continue to deteriorate in the months to come so that's why we need to address the situation as quickly as possible," Jean-Pierre de Margerie, the WFP's North Korea country director, told The Associated Press from Pyongyang.
De Margerie said observers had not yet seen evidence of a renewed famine. The North's food shortages in the 1990s after it lost Soviet aid and poor harvests due to natural disasters and mismanaged farming are believed to have killed as many as 2 million people.
The North has long bristled at the monitoring requirements of international donors to make sure that the food reaches the needy. In 2005, the government sharply scaled back what foreign aid it would allow and requested only development assistance, saying there was no longer an emergency situation.
Pyongyang agreed to the new aid program Friday, the WFP said, the same day Pyongyang blew up the reactor tower.
The new aid agreement marks a return by the WFP to its earlier levels of assistance, but also with greater access to parts of the country where the agency has not previously worked, de Margerie said.
American relief groups will distribute 100,000 tons of the food in two northwestern provinces, and the WFP the rest.
North Korea also has allowed the WFP to send some 50 more international workers to the country for monitoring, its largest staff presence since starting operations there in 1996.
The U.S. is the largest donor to the WFP's current aid program in North Korea, having pledged $38.9 million.