BEIJING, Feb 27 (Reuters) - China said on Monday it held talks with North Korea last week about providing food aid to the chronically hungry North, and urged other countries to help while Pyongyang weighs returning to six-party nuclear disarmament negotiations.
Beijing rarely acknowledges talks about aid with Pyongyang, although its economic, energy and political aid has become increasingly important to North Korea as its ties with South Korea and other allies of the United States have soured.
“Last week, officials in positions of responsibility from each country’s foreign ministry had contact. The two sides exchanged views on bilateral relations and international and regional issues of mutual concern,” ministry spokesman Hong Lei told a daily briefing.
“Both sides also discussed China’s provision of food aid to North Korea.”
China is guarded about its relationship with neighbouring North Korea, which it sees as a bulwark against possible encroachment by the United States and its allies. And Beijing is especially tight-lipped about flows of oil, grain and other aid to its much poorer and isolated neighbour.
Hong did not give any details about the size or timing of aid, but he urged other countries to pitch in.
“China has always done as much as it can to provide help to North Korea,” he said. “We also welcome other concerned parties and the international community to provide all forms of support and help to North Korea. This would help North Korea overcome its temporary difficulties.”
North Korea suffered famine in the 1990s that killed an estimated 1 million people. It has continued to endure chronic food shortages, which have been compounded since 2008-9 when the United States and South Korea suspended their food assistance.
Critics accuse the North’s one-party leadership of siphoning off aid to feed its million-strong army or stockpiling in the event of further, tightened sanctions over its nuclear program.
The United States last week in Beijing held its first sit-down negotiations with North Korea since its new and untested leader, Kim Jong-un, replaced his late father, and the North’s demands for food aid were also discussed then.
The talks are aimed at laying the groundwork for renewed six-party disarmament negotiations with North Korea, whose ties with South Korea have deteriorated, especially after deadly attacks on the South in 2010. One major concession the North is seeking is U.S. food aid for its chronically hungry population.
The six-party disarmament talks involving the two Koreas, the United States, China, Japan and Russia broke down in 2008, and United Nations nuclear inspectors were expelled from North Korea in 2009. (Reporting by Chris Buckley, Editing by Jonathan Thatcher)