By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, June 30, 2008 11:20 AM
TOKYO, June 30 -- A U.S. ship bearing 37,000 tons of wheat arrived in North Korea on Sunday, the first installment in what is scheduled to be a major expansion of international food aid inside the closed totalitarian country.
The United Nations World Food Program said it had signed an anticipated agreement with North Korea that would increase the international feeding operation there to more than 5 million people, up from the 1.2 million people now being fed.
The agreement also promises to give U.N. monitors more access than ever to find out who is eating the free food, a senior U.N. official said Monday.
"This agreement provides the best monitoring conditions the WFP has ever had in North Korea," said Tony Banbury, Asia director for the program, which has been funneling food to the famine-plagued North since the 1990s. "This marks a major advance in the way we work in this country."
The U.S. ship arrived in the North Korean port of Nampo, carrying the first of the half-million tons of food pledged in the spring by the Bush administration. The United States is providing the bulk of the food to be distributed in North Korea this year.
American food arrived on the heels of an extraordinary week of diplomacy on the part of North Korea, which in October of 2006 frightened the world by exploding a small nuclear bomb.
On Friday, Kim Jong Il's government invited Western television crews to film the demolition of a cooling tower at a disabled nuclear plant. On Thursday, it handed over a long-delayed declaration that disclosed some details about plutonium production.
That, in turn, prompted President Bush to take North Korea off a list of countries that sponsor terrorism and to ease some trade sanctions.
The United Nations continues to warn that North Korea is on the brink of a humanitarian crisis. Crop failures have caused a food shortfall this year of 1.66 million tons, about double the need of last year and the worst since 2001, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization said in April.
The United States says its food aid is determined by humanitarian need and that food is not used as a diplomatic lever. But its food is arriving during a season of much-improved, if still chilly and suspicious, relations between the Stalinist North and the Bush administration.
Bush in 2001 described Kim's government as part of an "axis of evil," but began negotiating with it shortly after North Korea exploded a test nuclear device.
The latest signal that North Korean paranoia about the West may be moderating is the terms under which Kim's government says it will allow food aid to be distributed.
For the first time, the WFP will be allowed to deploy Korean speakers as monitors to check that food goes to needy civilians, said Banbury, who spoke by phone from his office in Bangkok.
In the past, there have been widespread reports that donated food was diverted to the North Korean army and to people with government connections.
The number of WFP staff based inside North Korea will expand to 59, the largest number ever, Banbury said. They will be working in 128 counties, including seven counties in "sensitive areas" where U.N. staff had not previously been allowed. Two of those counties are in the southwest, near the heavily guarded border with South Korea.
As important, Banbury said, "we now have a much greater degree of randomness in our access."
In past years, when U.N. monitors wanted to find out where food was going and who was eating it, they had to apply to government officials and wait one or two weeks for permission to travel.
"Now, they have agreed that we can travel within 24 hours of applying for a permit," Banbury said.
The WFP program is to distribute about 80 percent of the food donated by the United States, with the remaining 20 percent to be handled by U.S. charitable groups, including World Vision and Mercy Corps. They will operate independently of the WFP in 25 counties.
Serious food shortages in North Korea are an almost annual event, in part because of inept farm management by the rigidly centralized government. But the problem has been exacerbated by severe flooding, which destroyed much of the country's main harvest last fall.
Prospects for this year's harvest are even worse because neighboring South Korea did not deliver the free fertilizer that it had been sending for nearly a decade. For that fertilizer to help the fall crop, it should have been spread on fields by June.
South Korea's new president, Lee Myung-bak, held back the fertilizer. His government is conditioning aid on progress in removing nuclear weapons, on improvements in human rights and on guarantees that food will go to poor people, not to the military.
The lack of fertilizer is expected to increase the food shortfall in the coming year by about 900,000 tons. "It is a really big deal," Banbury said.
A U.N. nutrition survey is currently underway inside North Korea, with experts visiting houses, hospitals and schools.
Banbury said it should be completed by mid-July, but preliminary reports suggest the food shortage and hunger are "very serious" already.