Food Program Pressured in N. Korea

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North Korean officials are pressuring the World Food Program to do more development work instead of simply providing food. That means the group not only has to negotiate with Pyongyang, it also has to persuade the Bush administration, which has been cutting back aid to North Korea in recent years.


There are big changes in the works for aid to North Korea. The North Korean government has demanded that the United Nations stop delivering food aid. It wants the focus to shift to development to help the country become less dependent on handouts. The US has been one of the major suppliers of food to North Korea. But as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports, the UN's World Food Programme will have a tough time getting the US to provide the kind of aid North Korea wants.


The World Food Programme's Richard Ragan is back to the drawing board after his counterpart in Pyongyang told him to think more about North Korea's long-term needs.

Mr. RICHARD RAGAN (World Food Programme): Negotiating with the North Koreans is an art form. I mean, you have be an eternal optimist.

KELEMEN: But he's not sounding too optimistic these days, saying he's already making plans to at least temporarily shut down WFP's food reprocessing factories in North Korea.

Mr. RAGAN: I'm certainly concerned that a program that we've worked hard to build up for 10 years faces some challenges. You know, at the least, we might have to dramatically scale back our program. At the worst, we might even have to close it. And I think that certainly closes a window of engagement to North Korea that's very valuable for the rest of the world.

KELEMEN: The UN's aid program was launched at the height of a famine that some US experts believe killed more than a million people. While the food crisis has eased, Ragan says North Korea won't be able to feed itself without outside support. He believes the North Koreans are calling for an end to food aid, in part because South Korea and China offer assistance on a bilateral basis, but also because Pyongyang doesn't like to have food monitors around.

Mr. RAGAN: The World Food Programme does anywhere between, you know, 3 and 500 visits around the country a month. And in a place like this, which is one of the most isolated and secretive countries in the world, that's difficult for them to manage. In fact, the World Food Programme probably has more freedom to move around the country than most North Koreans do.

KELEMEN: But that's still not enough for many US lawmakers and officials who have been pushing for more monitoring in recent years. The head of the US Agency for International Development, Andrew Natsios, says the North Koreans should understand that donors want to know where their money's going, even more so when it comes to long-term development projects.

Mr. ANDREW NATSIOS (US Agency for International Development): No aid agency just gives development assistance to countries, particularly with the history that North Korea has. And there is no stomach, I don't think, in the development community for large-scale development programs in North Korea absent heavy monitoring presence on the ground.

KELEMEN: North Korea accuses the US of playing politics with food aid, but Natsios repeated the US position that its aid is in no way tied to the sensitive talks on North Korea's nuclear weapons program. He was speaking at a recent conference at the Woodrow Wilson Center, where a report was released blasting the North Korean government for diverting aid. Marcus Noland, one of the authors of the study by the US Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, says up to half of aid deliveries do not reach their intended recipients, diverted to the less deserving or siphoned off to emerging markets.

Mr. MARCUS NOLAND (Study Co-author): The outside world faces a basic ethical conundrum when dealing with North Korea. We have an ethical imperative to ameliorate suffering, but we want to do so in a way that does not perpetuate the political regime, which is the ultimate source of this misery.

KELEMEN: Noland says while some US policy-makers might be tempted to walk away, hoping a food crisis will lead to regime change, that view underestimates what he calls the staying power of the North Korean dictatorship. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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