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(LEAD) U.S. officials in N. Korea for consultation: official media

All Headlines 17:09 May 24, 2011

(ATTN: UPDATES with arrival of American officials; RESTRUCTURES)

SEOUL, May 24 (Yonhap) -- A team of U.S. officials arrived in North Korea on Tuesday, the communist state's official media said, a trip intended for consultation on "humanitarian issues" between the two longtime foes.

The delegation, led by Robert King, special American ambassador on North Korean human rights, had departed from Beijing hours earlier to arrive in North Korea where it seeks to clarify doubts about Pyongyang's persistent appeals for food aid.

Diplomatic sources in Seoul said earlier in the day King is scheduled to leave North Korea on Saturday while some members of his team will stay there until next Thursday or so for a deeper look into food shortages in the impoverished nation of 24 million people.

The Korean Central News Agency, Pyongyang's main mouthpiece, said in a single-paragraph report the team arrived in the North Korean capital "by air to consult humanitarian issues" between the sides.

The trip, purely a fact-finding mission according to the State Department, comes as North Korean leader Kim Jong-il is in China for his third visit in just over a year and tours economic hubs there.

U.S. food aid to the North was suspended in March 2009 amid heightened tensions over Pyongyang's nuclear and missile tests, and controversy over the transparency of food distribution.

Washington pledged in 2008 to provide 500,000 tons of food, but delivered only 169,000 tons before the shipments were suspended.

The United Nations earlier this year appealed for 430,000 tons of food for North Korea to feed 6 million people stricken by floods and severe winter weather. A U.N. monitoring team concluded a fact-finding mission in North Korea in early April.

South Korea appears to be less willing to resume food aid as critics say North Korea is exaggerating its food shortages to hoard food in preparation for the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il-sung, its late leader, in April next year.
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