REPORTING FROM SEOUL -– Humanitarian groups have criticized a decision by the Obama administration not to speed up plans to send food aid to malnourished North Koreans following the death of leader Kim Jong Il.
David Austin, North Korea program director for Mercy Corps, said Washington could send a strong humanitarian message to the new North Korean regime that it is ready to pitch in to help.
"This is a great opportunity," he said. "What a great way to engage the new regime. Let's start on the most basic humanitarian principals."
U.S. State Department officials said they intended to wait out the announced 11-day official mourning period to mark Kim Jong Il's death in North Korea before assessing the nation's food needs.
"We're going to have to keep talking about this, and given the mourning period, frankly, we don't think we'll be able to have much more clarity and resolve these issues before the new year," spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told a news conference.
The regime is in the process of transitioning power to Kim's youngest son and untested heir-apparent, Kim Jong Un.
The U.S. has reportedly earmarked 240,000 tons of protein-rich food if Pyongyang agrees to freeze its controversial uranium-enrichment program.
Austin said that on their last trip to flood-hit regions of the country in September, nonprofit workers witnessed children starving. He said his group has readied a container of medicine to send to the country within weeks.
"The reality is that as long as we don't engage, then we are losing a prime opportunity to get food to these people now," he said.
Despite an independent assessment in March that a quarter of North Korea's 24 million people required emergency food aid, international donors have been reluctant to help, wary that the regime would intercept any aid for itself.
The U.S. has demanded better safeguards on the distribution of aid, such as the presence of more Korean-speaking monitors.
-- John M. Glionna
Photo: A ruined ear of corn from a cooperative farm in Chongdan county in North Korea is displayed in a Sept. 7 photo released by a group of five U.S. non-governmental organizations. Credit: Associated Press