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U.S., North Korea hope to finalize food deal next week

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States and North Korea will meet in Beijing next week to finalize details of a new U.S. food aid program that has opened the door to a renewal of nuclear talks with Pyongyang, the U.S. State Department said on Friday.

Robert King, the State Department's special envoy for human rights in North Korea, is to meet with North Korean officials on Wednesday to discuss technical elements of the proposal along with monitoring standards.

"Our expectation is that that will go smoothly because there appears to be common understanding and will on both sides," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told a news briefing.

North Korea announced on Wednesday that it would suspend key elements of its nuclear weapons program and allow U.N. inspectors to return as part of a deal with the United States that could see the eventual resumption of nuclear disarmament talks that broke down in 2008.

The United States, in turn, pledged to resume food aid to the isolated and impoverished country, although Washington has repeatedly said the two issues are not directly linked.

The U.S. offer involves 240,000 metric tonnes of food, to be delivered in monthly installments and including such items as corn-soy blend, vegetable oil and therapeutic foods aimed at combating severe malnutrition.

Nuland said King's discussions in Beijing would focus on the mechanics of food shipments as well as details on how the food assistance will be monitored to ensure it reaches the most needy people and is not diverted.

"We are now to the shipment issues, the vendor issues, the implementation of the monitoring," Nuland said, adding that the United States would wait to see how the first tranche of aid goes before deciding on any further steps.

The United States and South Korea suspended previous food aid programs to North Korea amid disagreements over transparency and monitoring.

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

U.S. officials say North Korea's announcement this week of a new moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile tests opened the door for the possible resumption of the "six party talks" involving the two Koreas, the United States, China, Japan and Russia which broke down in 2008.

But they have also cautioned that they need to see more moves by Pyongyang, particularly on improving its strained relationship with South Korea, before a fresh round of the aid-for-denuclearization negotiations can begin.

(Reporting By Andrew Quinn; Editing by Vicki Allen)

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