Dispute Stalls U.S. Food Aid To N. Korea

By Blaine Harden and Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, December 9, 2008

TOKYO, Dec. 8 -- A much-heralded U.S. program to restart food aid to North Korea has run into difficulty as Washington and Pyongyang haggle over the terms of access, according to U.S. and overseas officials. The previously undisclosed problems come amid estimates of growing hunger in the isolated communist country.

A report released Monday by the U.N. World Food Program and Food and Agriculture Organization said that despite a better-than-usual harvest, more than a third of North Korea's population will need food aid in the coming year. The agencies' estimate of the number of hungry has jumped from 6.2 million to 8.7 million.

U.S. officials noted that food aid delivered via nongovernmental organizations continues but acknowledged that the main effort -- through the World Food Program -- has stalled. They said they are trying to resolve the problems, which concern disputes over the number of U.S. personnel in Pyongyang and Korean-speaking U.N. employees around the country.

"The United States seeks to fully implement the terms of the food aid agreement with the DPRK, which included agreed-upon improvements in monitoring and access conditions that are necessary to effectively ensure food is reaching those most in need," State Department spokesman Robert A. Wood said, referring to North Korea's official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

But Tony Banbury, Asia director for the World Food Program, said that if the problems are not resolved soon, millions of hungry people will not get food in the middle of the harsh North Korean winter.

"The whole operation may come to a halt in January because we don't have enough food," Banbury said. "Already in October, we could reach only 2.4 million people and only with 40 percent of the rations they should be getting."

The Bush administration announced in May that it would give 500,000 tons of food to North Korea, resuming an aid program it had stopped in 2005. A State Department spokesman said then that the government was acting "because America is a compassionate nation." But some experts said the aid was a reward for progress in the long effort to persuade North Korean leader Kim Jong Il to give up nuclear weapons.

The United States pledged to distribute 80 percent of the food, or 400,000 tons, through the World Food Program, which has a decade-old operation inside North Korea, and the rest through U.S. nongovernmental organizations. But only about a quarter of that food has arrived.

The last shipment was in August. About that time, Kim is believed to have suffered a stroke, and Pyongyang officials began backing off some commitments to disable and eventually abandon nuclear weapons.

Asked why North Korea-bound food aid has stopped going to the World Food Program, White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe, said, "In the case of the WFP, we are working with the North Koreans to maintain the plans in the agreement with them."

Johndroe noted that aid continues via nongovernmental groups but declined to say what disagreements, if any, have emerged to warrant the suspension of food shipments to the largest distributor.

"To date, over 143,000 metric tons of U.S. food -- wheat, corn, and soybeans -- has been delivered to North Korea," said Wood, the State Department spokesman, noting that a shipment of 25,000 metric tons of corn and soybeans arrived in North Korea on Nov. 23 and has been unloaded for distribution by the U.S. NGOs.

Banbury said that in the past six months, North Korea has given the World Food Program broader access than before, including to counties near the Chinese border where U.N. food monitors had been denied entry.

"The North Koreans are fulfilling their obligations under agreements with the WFP and the U.S. government," Banbury said. "We just no longer have food to deliver, and that is risking the cooperation we have been receiving from the North."

Banbury said his agency's policy requires that monitors have on-the-ground access to all storage and distribution sites. In recent years, there have been allegations that foreign food aid was diverted to the military and official elites.

"Our policy is: No access, no food. But the North Koreans are saying: No food, no access," Banbury said. "We risk the possibility that the whole operation will unravel. It happened in 2005."

Kessler reported from Washington.

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