WASHINGTON - The United States said yesterday that it had reached a deal with North Korea to provide the closed-off communist nation 500,000 metric tons of food aid over the coming year.

The Bush administration says the aid is unrelated to its nuclear disarmament deal with Pyongyang, although both have involved an unusual intensity of U.S. diplomacy with a nation President Bush once included in the "axis of evil."

The State Department announced the agreement after weeks of talks over how the food would be distributed. The administration wants assurances that the food will not be diverted or used improperly by Kim Jong Il's government.

"The two sides have agreed on terms for a substantial improvement in monitoring and access in order to allow for confirmation of receipt by the intended recipients," according to a statement from the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Pyongyang "has been open in saying it faces a major shortage in food supplies," White House press secretary Dana Perino said this week.

"The president thinks that the government is certainly diverting food to the military and not giving it to the people," she said. "But outside of politics, the president's heart hurts when he knows that people are starving, and especially because - especially for children, who are maybe trying to go to school."

North Korea's food situation has worsened this year because of last year's devastating floods, which destroyed more than 11 percent of the country's crops.

Since the mid-1990s, the country has resorted to international assistance to feed its 23 million people, who are often left unfed because of natural disasters and mismanagement. The United Nations has warned that North Korea urgently needs outside aid to avert a worse humanitarian disaster.

South Korea's foreign minister said Thursday that his government is also willing to talk with North Korea about food aid.

Relations between the two Koreas worsened after South Korea's conservative government took power in February with a pledge to take a tougher line on the North. The North subsequently said it would stop seeking help from the South, previously a key donor.