Remember when North Korea loomed menacingly as the next big nuclear threat on the world stage, with cognac-swilling Communist Kim Jong Il starring as the latest dictator du jour? What a difference a few years can make: The North Korean government has now demonstrated its willingness to halt the country’s nuclear weapons program and has begun accepting food shipments from the U.S. and increased aid from the World Food Program.

International Herald Tribune:

A U.S. cargo ship carrying humanitarian aid made a rare visit to North Korea on Monday, and the Communist North agreed to give international aid workers the most access so far to its hunger-stricken land, the United Nations food agency said.

The American ship’s visit and the North Korean agreement to invite an additional 50 international relief experts from the World Food Program, as well as a consortium of U.S. humanitarian agencies, followed fresh signs of progress in efforts to shut down the North’s nuclear programs.

For years, North Korea has jealously guarded its people from contacting outside aid workers. The World Food Program, the largest aid group operating in North Korea, has only 10 international staffers based there.

The North’s agreement on access came as a confluence of internal and external factors was pushing the country toward a major food crisis: two consecutive years of bad harvest, rising grain prices that curtailed the North’s ability to import food, and dwindling bilateral assistance from South Korea and China, its two most generous aid providers in recent years.

“To some degree, this agreement is part of a greater openness by North Korea,” said Paul Risley, a spokesman for the World Food Program based in Bangkok.

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