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U.S. says no nuclear link with North Korea food talks

By Sui-Lee Wee

BEIJING (Reuters) - The U.S. envoy for North Korean policy said on Thursday Washington was making no linkage between talks between the two countries on food aid and trying to get the reclusive nation back to the table to discuss its nuclear program.

Robert King, the State Department's special envoy for human rights in North Korea, was meeting with North Korean officials in Beijing to discuss Washington's conditions for resuming aid halted in 2009 amid disagreements over transparency and monitoring.

The State Department said the North Korean delegation would include Ri Gun, Pyongyang's deputy negotiator for stalled six-party nuclear disarmament talks, but U.S. officials insisted there was no link between the food talks and the nuclear impasse.

U.S. officials have cautioned that no decision was imminent.

"The short answer is there isn't any linkage between this issue of the provision of nutritional assistance to North Korea and this broader discussion that we hope to have with the North at the right time, if they do the right thing, on these issues related to denuclearization," Special Representative for North Korea Policy Glyn Davies told reporters in Beijing.

"But I will say that we are paying close attention to how these talks on nutritional assistance go. We are looking for the north to engage in those discussions in good faith," he added.

"There's no reason that these talks will be long and protracted and drawn out. The issues are relatively straightforward. We'll be watching it but that's about the extent that I'll say there's a read across or cross over here."

North Korea suffered a crippling famine in the 1990s that killed an estimated 1 million people. It has continued to have chronic food shortages, which have been compounded since 2008-9 when the United States and South Korea suspended their food assistance efforts.

Davies said King's talks in Beijing would centre on the "modalities" of providing food aid.

"We need the right degree of cooperation from Pyongyang and from the government, we need the right degree of access for our people and we need to ensure that this nutritional assistance goes to the populations that need it," Davies said.

"We have a good idea of what's needed for the undernourished populations in North Korea, so this should not be a difficult set of discussions on nutritional assistance. It'll be watched for what the North Koreans bring to the table and how well these discussions go."

Critics accuse the North's authoritarian leadership of siphoning off aid to feed its million-strong army or stockpiling in the event of further, tightened sanctions over its nuclear program.

Six-party talks involving the two Koreas, the United States, China, Japan and Russia broke down in 2008, and United Nations inspectors were expelled from North Korea in 2009.

Despite repeated efforts, there has been little sign of progress since then.

U.S. and North Korean official have met twice in recent months regarding an eventual return to talks on ending Pyongyang's atomic programs.

The meetings, despite no immediate breakthrough, marked the end of a period of acute tensions last year when Seoul accused Pyongyang of sinking one of its ships and shelling one of its islands.

(Writing by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Yoko Nishikawa)

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