By MATTHEW PENNINGTON, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — The United States and North Korea will meet in Beijng next week to finalize arrangements of the first U.S. government food aid shipment to the impoverished country in three years, the State Department said Friday.
In a reminder of tensions that remain on the Korean Peninsula, however, Washington criticized a threat by the North's military to wage a "sacred war" against rival South Korea in response to current U.S.-South Korea military exercises.
In a diplomatic breakthrough, Washington and Pyongyang announced the aid Wednesday. In exchange, North Korea has agreed to freeze nuclear activities and allow the return of U.N. nuclear inspectors.
The department said the special envoy for North Korean human rights issues, Robert King, and senior U.S. Agency for International Development official Jon Brause will hold technical discussions with North Korean officials in the Chinese capital starting Wednesday. They will return to Washington on Thursday.
"The idea is to finalize all of the technical arrangements so that the nutritional assistance can begin to move," spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters.
The U.S. says it has offered 240,000 tons of food to be delivered in monthly shipments and targeted at young children and pregnant women. The last handouts ended abruptly in 2009 when North Korea expelled U.S. food monitors.
North Korea, which suffers chronic food shortages and endured a famine in the 1990s that killed hundreds of thousands of people, requested the assistance more than a year ago.
The United States denies the humanitarian aid is being granted to the North in return for its nuclear concessions that could now open the way for multinational talks. They also were suspended in 2009. Such talks would aim at negotiating what assistance the North would get in exchange for dismantling its nuclear weapons program.
Nuland described as "unfortunate" the statement by the Supreme Command of the Korean People's Army threatening South Korea with war. The statement was provided Friday to The Associated Press in Pyongyang.
"Frankly, it's not helpful to the kind of environment that we are trying to foster. We had a good, small initial step," said Nuland, "so we would like to see that matched with other steps as we move forward."
Washington has said that improved inter-Korean ties are crucial for success in the nuclear talks.
Associated Press writer Matthew Lee contributed to this report.