SEOUL, South Korea - North Korea said Jan. 11 that the United States had offered food aid and a suspension of sanctions if it halted its uranium enrichment program.
The comments by a foreign ministry spokesman to Pyongyang's official news agency were the first by the North on the issue.
Before the sudden death of the North's leader Kim Jong-Il on Dec. 17, there were several media reports that such an agreement was imminent.
At talks in July last year, Washington "proposed to take confidence-building steps such as suspension of sanctions, as well as food aid" in return for a "temporary suspension" of uranium enrichment, the North's spokesman said.
Experts say the uranium program disclosed in November 2010 could give the communist state a second way to make nuclear weapons. The disclosure spurred efforts to revive stalled six-party nuclear disarmament negotiations.
The U.S. and North Korea last year held two rounds of bilateral talks aimed at restarting the negotiations last held in December 2008.
A third round was reportedly scheduled in Beijing before the announcement of Kim's death put the process on hold.
The spokesman's statement suggested that a deal was still on the cards if the U.S. raised the amount of food it is willing to offer. "We will watch if the U.S. truly wants to build confidence," it said.
Washington says any decision to offer humanitarian food aid would not be linked to other issues, but the spokesman accused the United States of politicizing the issue.
Robert King, U.S. special envoy for North Korean human rights, met senior North Korean foreign ministry official Ri Gun in Beijing in December to discuss a possible resumption of U.S. food aid.
South Korean media reports at the time said the North had agreed to suspend its uranium program while the U.S. would provide up to 240,000 tons of food.
The U.S. pledged 500,000 tons of rice in 2008. Shipments stopped the following year amid questions over transparency of the distribution, and Pyongyang told the Americans to leave.
The North's spokesman said Jan. 11 the U.S. had failed to provide 330,000 tons of the amount promised three years ago.
In recent talks it "has drastically changed the amount and items of provision contrary to the originally promised food aid", the spokesman said, adding this raised doubts about Washington's willingness to build confidence.
The U.S. is offering high-energy biscuits and similar nutritional supplements in its latest package, rather than rice which could be diverted to the military or the elite.
UN agencies that visited in February 2011 said six million North Koreans - a quarter of the population - need urgent aid in a nation where hundreds of thousands died in a famine in the 1990s.