U.N. to Resume Food Aid to N. Korea

By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, May 12, 2006

BEIJING, May 11 -- After a government-imposed shutdown of more than four months, the World Food Program announced Thursday that it would resume food aid to hungry North Koreans, but on a sharply reduced scale.

Tony Banbury, the U.N. agency's regional director for Asia, said he signed an accord with the government in Pyongyang that will allow 10 staff members to operate a $102 million feeding program, helping 1.9 million of the neediest North Koreans over the next two years.

The accord, reached Wednesday after prolonged negotiations, ended the uncertainty that has prevailed since the government of Kim Jong Il, the North Korean leader, announced in August that it would accept development aid but no longer wanted food aid. That forced the World Food Program, which runs North Korea's main feeding operation, to halt work at the end of December.

Banbury called the new agreement "an important breakthrough" for North Korea's undernourished poor. But he said the number of people receiving food would drop considerably under restrictions laid down by North Korean officials -- from 6 million in 163 counties under last year's $200 million-plus program to 1.9 million in 30 counties under the new program.

"They explained this by saying they needed less food, that their crops were getting better and that they did not want to create a culture of dependency," Banbury told reporters during a stop in Beijing.

Food aid has been delivered to North Korea, mainly by the United Nations, as a humanitarian operation, but the promise of more broadly defined international aid has been an important factor in the stalled talks on the country's nuclear weapons program. The fact that Kim's government is willing to reduce food aid suggests it may also be less than desperate for the economic rewards offered as an inducement to abandon its nuclear weapons development.

Because Kim's government is highly secretive, its assertion that more food aid was unnecessary could not be verified, Banbury said. But he expressed skepticism, noting that North Korea recently sought 500,000 tons of grain from South Korea and in recent years has consistently produced nearly 1 million tons less than its annual requirement of 5.3 million tons.

Economic reforms that began in 2002 have gradually loosened North Korea's rigidly Stalinist system and injected some life into the economy, according to reports from Pyongyang. In particular, private food markets have been allowed in recent years, providing previously unheard-of choices for those with money. Food prices soared, however, prompting farmers to sell their crops in the private sector rather than to the public distribution system at controlled state prices. This in turn made life harder for the poorest among North Korea's 23 million people, who rely on public rations.

In response, the government announced recently that the public distribution system would resume its monopoly on food grains. How this step ties in with the economic reforms was not explained. But Banbury said the agreement to resume U.N. food aid suggested that North Korean officials realized the public distribution system could not get food to everyone who needed it despite their earlier assertion that it was time to move on to development aid.

Production and distribution of U.N. food aid will resume immediately, he said, but it will take several weeks to get operations up to speed. As it was previously, most of the food aid will be in the form of vitamin-enriched biscuits for children, enriched porridge mixes for infants and supplements for pregnant women and the elderly.

Although the number of staff members has been shaved from 48 to 10, Banbury said U.N. officials would be able to verify that the food was going to the poor and not government officials or the military. Diversion of food has been a major concern of the United States and other U.N. donor countries since Kim proclaimed that soldiers and other officials have priority in North Korea.

"We will not be providing food to any areas of the country where our staff does not have full access," Banbury said.


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