North Korea to Ban Food Aid
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Tomorrow North Korea will ban food aid from international humanitarian groups. A decade ago, Pyongyang asked for help after at least one million North Koreans died of famine. Since then the United Nations World Food Program and various charities have given aid to North Korea, and those are the same relief agencies that the Communist government now wants to remove. Here's NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg.
SUSAN STAMBERG reporting:
The harvest has been good in North Korea this year, but observers say that has little to do with the government's decision to get rid of foreign relief agencies. Anthony Banbury, the World Food Program's regional director for Asia, is on the line with us.
Mr. Banbury, this is a closed, repressive government and they have very different reasons, apart from the harvest.
Mr. ANTHONY BANBURY (World Food Program, Asia): Yes, ma'am. We think it's a combination of the government not wanting to appear weak in the context of the six-party talks they're engaged in, not wanting to be a recipient of food aid from countries that they're now negotiating with on much more security-related issues. And also the World Food Program, over the past several years, has made tremendous progress in how we monitor our food aid. We do about 500 visits a month, going to people's homes and to schools and to hospitals' nurseries, and the North Korean government is very uncomfortable with that.
STAMBERG: What kind of things are your monitors finding out about what's going on in North Korea?
Mr. BANBURY: The WFP monitors are learning what many of us have known for a while, which is that the humanitarian situation for literally millions of people in the country is quite desperate still. This is particularly the case for elderly people who are living on a pension that's about 50 cents a month, for pregnant women and very young children who have very special nutritional needs. These people are the ones that we're targeting, that we're trying to help.
STAMBERG: What will it mean to the people of North Korea, if you've been providing food for about a third of the population, now being banned, being forced to leave? What will it mean to them?
Mr. BANBURY: Well, the impact of WFP's departure will be devastating. The food we're providing for those 6.5 million people is the difference between what they can get on their own and the bare minimum they need to get by. So we're really providing, say, 20, 30 percent of what they need, but that 20, 30 percent just gets them to the level of what they need so they can have, say, one good meal a day at home with their family.
STAMBERG: In the meantime, in addition to their own improved harvest, recent one anyway, a lot of food is coming into North Korea from South Korea and from China.
Mr. BANBURY: Well, I think that's another reason why the North Koreans have decided to end humanitarian assistance is because we have so many strings attached to our food--these 500 monitoring visits a month. When they get bilateral assistance from other countries and, as you correctly point out, lately it's been quite large amounts of food in some cases, there are no strings attached, or virtually no strings attached. And it's much easier for them, much more comfortable for them to get that type of food than to have to deal with the WFP monitors in the countryside.
STAMBERG: So what happens to you, your people and your program? You pack up and get out?
Mr. BANBURY: Well, we have been phasing down the past four weeks or so. We have five offices outside of Pyongyang, which we've shut down in the past couple weeks. We have 19 local food factories producing biscuits and noodles, highly fortified ones for pregnant women and young kids. We've shut all those down. But we are also negotiating now with the government on whether we would have a development-focused food aid program. That's what they've said. They don't want humanitarian assistance; they want development assistance. And we are discussing with them and our donors whether we can stay on and carry out such an operation.
STAMBERG: Thank you very much. Anthony Banbury is the UN World Food Program's regional director for Asia.
I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.
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