David Beasley, executive director of the U.N. World Food Program, stands with children at a nursery school and kindergarten in Sinwon county, North Korea. WFP provides food assistance to the school. Beasley says a peace agreement with North Korea will go far toward easing the impoverished nation's chronic food-security woes. (Silke Buhr/World Food Program via AP)

The head of the United Nations World Food Program (WFP) says he encountered a remarkable sense of optimism on a trip to North Korea this past week and said he hoped donors would respond by providing more funding to help feed the country’s children.

Visiting the country for the first time — just a month before President Trump is due to meet North Korea leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore — David Beasley said he hoped North Korea’s children would be the beneficiaries of what he called “this new spirit.”

“I do believe everyone wants to open a new chapter in world history, turn the page and look to a brighter future,” he said in an interview in Beijing on Saturday. “My thoughts are: Let’s not throw cold water on that. Let’s try to keep the momentum going.”

WFP estimates that more than 10 million of North Korea’s 24.8 million people are undernourished, with 1 in 3 young mothers and children under age 5 suffering from anemia. It feeds about 500,000 women and children every month, including with porridge and high-energy biscuits, but says its food aid program is “severely underfunded.”

The sanctions agreed to by the United Nations Security Council allow for humanitarian aid to flow into the country through U.N. agencies, on the condition that the United Nations monitors the aid to ensure it is not diverted to the government or military.

World Food Program Executive Director David Beasley speaks during an interview in Beijing. (Mark Schiefelbein/AP)

But many countries are skeptical about sending aid to a country — except in extreme circumstances — that could ultimately serve to support the regime or indirectly allow it to spend more money on its nuclear and missile program. WFP officials are also not given full access to the country to properly establish its humanitarian needs.

But Beasley, a former Republican governor of South Carolina, said he had been given greater access than many of his predecessors, spending two days of his four-day trip visiting villages and meeting farmers, teachers, cooks and mothers, including a six-hour trip from Pyongyang to the Chinese border, mostly along dirt roads, with many stops along the way

It’s springtime, and he said he had seen men and women everywhere in the fields, working with their hands, with oxen, rakes, hoes and shovels, and very little mechanization. Every available inch of land, including even road embankments, appeared to be under cultivation, noting what he called an “incredible work ethic.”

Droughts, floods and government policies combined to create famine in the 1990s that killed hundreds of thousands of people, and although the situation has improved significantly since then, rains were poor last season, he said.

The largely mountainous country also suffers from a shortage of arable land, Beasley said, with only 15 to 20 percent of land available for cultivation. That creates a problem feeding the nation’s children.

“They are not starving,” he said, “but they are not getting the nutrition they need for proper mental and physical development.”

Beasley said he had held frank discussions with North Korean officials in Pyongyang about the need to grant WFP staff greater access and more data about nutrition in the country, telling them, “We can’t help you unless you help us.” 

In the past, he said, officials may have been hesitant to speak to people from the outside world, but Beasley said he had been “pleasantly surprised” by the openness he encountered and a willingness to learn from WFP’s expertise.

“The good news is we are on the road in the right direction; the tough news is that we started at a pretty difficult point,” he said. “It’s been said we had better access than anyone else, but that access has still been very limited.”

WFP’s food aid program to North Korea counts Switzerland, Russia, Canada, France and Liechtenstein as its principal donors, but serious underfunding forced it to shrink rations in February 2017 and, since November, leave 190,000 children in kindergarten without nutritional support.

Beasley said he hoped the peace process and the lifting of sanctions would deliver “a brighter future for the children of North Korea,” he said. 

“When one child suffers — it doesn’t matter what country they are in — we all pay a cost for that,” he said. “The children of the DPRK have the same hopes, the same dreams, the same rights as any children around the world, and the needs are great,” he added, using the initials of the country’s official name.

But in Beijing, not everyone is convinced. 

“If the food situation is now deteriorating in North Korea, North Korea should spend its budget helping the people, including children, instead of spending its resources for its nuclear and missile programs,” said one diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the diplomat was not authorized to be quoted by name.