N. Korean Food Crisis Spurs U.N. to Act

By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, July 31, 2008

BEIJING, July 30 -- With shriveled harvests and a cutback in imports, North Korea has slipped back into a serious food shortage that is causing millions of people to go hungry, the United Nations announced Wednesday.

The main U.N. aid agency in North Korea, the World Food Program, has decided to resume emergency operations there in the next two weeks to help feed more than 5 million people over the next 15 months at a cost of $500 million, according to Jean-Pierre de Margerie, the agency's country director in the North's capital, Pyongyang.

"The situation is indeed very serious," de Margerie said at a news conference in Beijing.

The decision to resume emergency operations, which were scaled back in 2005 on a request from the North Korean government, came after a U.N. survey last month showed the most severe and widespread hunger among North Koreans in a decade. The survey was taken after the Pyongyang government, in an unusual gesture, officially acknowledged a growing hunger crisis and appealed for international aid.

Ending North Korea's isolation from its neighbors and encouraging it to cooperate with international organizations have been major goals of six-country negotiations aimed at dismantling the country's nuclear weapons program. In return for destroying its nuclear research installations and weaponry, North Korea has been promised large amounts of economic aid and better relations with the United States and Asian neighbors.

After five years of on-again, off-again talks, North Korea earlier this year disabled its main reactor, a plutonium-based facility at Yongbyon, near the capital, and pledged to provide a full accounting of its entire nuclear program. Negotiations have begun on how the accounting will be verified. But the North Korean government has protested that promised energy aid, in the form of 1 million tons of fuel oil, has not arrived fast enough to justify further revelations.

Against that background, the United States recently pledged to give North Korea 500,000 tons of food over the next six months, most of which will be distributed by the World Food Program as part of its emergency effort. That aid is not specifically tied to the nuclear negotiations.

De Margerie said the first delivery, 37,000 tons of wheat, arrived in a North Korean port two weeks ago and more shiploads are expected soon.

In contrast to past practice, the North Korean government has been willing to allow U.N. aid workers more leeway to monitor delivery of the new food supplies, de Margerie said. Similarly flexible oversight rules were negotiated by the United States as a condition for its 500,000-ton donation.

Flooding last summer damaged fields, leading to insufficient crops and, as a result, soaring food prices. At the same time, de Margerie said, imports dropped dramatically this spring, particularly from South Korea and China.

These developments exacerbated a perennial shortfall of around 20 percent, or 1.6 million tons, in the amount of food that North Korea's 23 million people need for adequate nourishment.

Prices of staples such as rice, eggs and corn doubled, tripled and even quadrupled, de Margerie said.

People living in the worst-hit areas, particularly the northeast corner of the country, have taken to scavenging for grass, seaweed and wild roots to supplement their diets, he said. More than half the households surveyed by a U.N. team last month had cut back from three meals a day to two because of the lack of food, he added.

"The last time hunger was so deep and so widespread in parts of the country was in the late 1990s," de Margerie said in a statement.

The World Food Program emergency operation that was cut back in 2005, at a time when food production was improving, was reaching about 8 million people. Since then, the agency has been helping about 1.2 million people with long-term development aid.

Now, de Margerie said, resumption of emergency operations will aim at getting food to as many as 6 million people by September, which is considered a critical period because this autumn's crops will not have entered the government-run distribution system. Quick donations of about $20 million are needed to get the new program running, he added.

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