(ATTN: UPDATES with comments on American man detained in NK, other details; ADDS photo)
By Lee Chi-dong
WASHINGTON, April 22 (Yonhap) -- A U.S. special envoy on North Korea said Monday that North Korea's food plight is "fairly difficult" and that Washington is keeping the door open for food aid.
Robert King, the U.S. special envoy for North Korean human rights issues, affirmed that the U.S. draws a line between food assistance and politics.
"If there were a request for assistance, it's something I'm sure that we would look at," he said during a roundtable meeting with reporters at the State Department. "We try to keep our humanitarian assistance separate from political considerations."
He cited Washington's three main criteria in deciding whether to provide food aid to a country -- its own need, comparison with needs in other nations, and transparency in distribution.
"Reports from a lot of organizations that operate in North Korea indicate conditions are fairly difficult," King said. "People don't have a lot of protein. The food situation is very tight."
In a separate report, the World Food Program said last fall that the North's food supply might have improved.
The envoy said he is aware of a news report that North Korea recently asked for food assistance from Mongolia, although he refused to confirm whether it is true.
The U.S. suspended shipments of food to North Korea in 2009 amid concerns that much of it was used for the military and other ruling elites, not those in need.
In 2011, the U.S. agreed to send 240,000 tons of "nutritional assistance" to the North but the deal broke apart when the North launched a long-range rocket.
King, who was assigned to the post in November 2009, emphasized that the North's human rights conditions are "egregious," as the State Department suggested in the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2012, issued last week.
He pointed out that what is especially worrisome is the operation of political prison camps, where as many as 200,000 people are believed to be held.
Human rights activists say the situation has worsened since Kim Jong-un took power in late 2011, following the death of his father, Kim Jong-il.
King said the number of North Korean defectors to China has sharply decreased, apparently due to tight border controls by both sides.
"The number of refugees leaving North Korea is down this year," he said. "Last year was probably 57 percent of what it was the year before. The only thing I think we've noticed is tighter control over the border."
King emphasized the importance of making constant and patient efforts to address the North Korean human rights record, partly by putting pressure on Beijing.
"We have to continue to press the North Koreans. We have to call attention to what they are doing. We have to continue to say it is wrong to do this," he said.
He pointed out that changes in the Soviet Union (Russia) and China did not take place "overnight."
On the issue of winning the freedom of Kenneth Bae, a Korean-American man held in the North for half a year, King said the U.S. is continuing efforts through the Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang, which serves as protecting power for American citizens there. The U.S. has no diplomatic office in the North since the nations have no formal diplomatic ties.
But there hasn't been any request from North Korea for the U.S. to send a high-profile figure to negotiate Bae's release, according to King.
In 2009, former U.S. President Bill Clinton traveled to Pyongyang to bring two American female journalists back home.
King worked on Capitol Hill for 25 years, mostly as chief of staff to Rep. Tom Lantos (D-California), known for his longstanding efforts to promote human rights worldwide.
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