N. Korea Puts Restrictions on U.N. Food Program

The World Food Program says it plans to resume food aid to North Korea. But under the new terms of operation worked out with the North Korean government, the U.N. agency no longer will be able to maintain offices outside of North Korea's capital, raising questions about its ability to monitor shipments.

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The U.N. World Food Program has reached an agreement with North Korea that allows the agency to resume food aid to needy North Koreans. For 10 years, the group had delivered emergency food aid to North Korea, but it stopped last December at Pyongyang's demand. The terms for restarting the program are likely to fuel and old debate over the wisdom of providing assistance to a totalitarian government.

NPR's Vicky O'Hara reports.

VICKY O'HARA reporting:

When North Korea ordered a halt to the aid program last year, Pyongyang explained it no longer needed emergency assistance and asked instead for development aid. Indeed, with improved crops and independent food shipments from China and South Korea, the country has recovered somewhat from a massive famine that killed untold numbers of people in the 1990s.

But U.N. officials were convinced that hunger and malnutrition were still a fact of life for most North Koreans. So the World Food Program, or WFP, lobbied Pyongyang to allow aid to resume. After a two-day visit to Pyongyang, Tony Banbury, the WFP's Asia director, said the talks now have produced a letter of understanding that allows aid to resume.

Mr. TONY BANBURY (Asia Director, World Food Program): The World Food Program is very satisfied with the conditions the letter stipulates and the type of access that it provides for us to the people who will be receiving our assistance.

O'HARA: Banbury says the letter calls for a program that is substantially smaller, about 60 percent smaller than in the past, because the reclusive North Korean government wanted fewer U.N. workers in-country. What is perhaps more significant is that the new terms of operation do not allow the U.N. agency to reopen offices anywhere except in the capital.

Banbury says the U.N. formerly had five offices scattered through the provinces.

Mr. BANBURY: The type of monitoring we do can be construed by some, perhaps, as intrusive. And there's always been a certain level of discomfort by the North Koreans in our field activities.

Banbury acknowledges that North Korea's discomfort with U.N. monitors undoubtedly was a factor in its decision to halt the program in the first place. But he says that the WFP staff can keep tabs on what happens to food shipments in North Korea even without field offices.

Mr. BANBURY: We will continue to do field visits in the countryside. Our monitors will be staying overnight in the local areas where the food is being delivered. And we, at least for now, are confident that we'll be able to deliver the type of program that we in the World Food Program and our donors expect.

O'HARA: Washington is the largest WFP donor to North Korea, but U.S. officials say they have not seen the letter of understanding and, therefore, are not ready to comment.

But Andrew Natsios, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development for the first five years of the Bush Administration, is perturbed.

Professor ANDREW NATSIOS (Georgetown University): There's a lot less monitoring in the current agreement than there was before, and what they had before was grossly inadequate. And it violates most of the international norms that are followed in every country in the world for food programs.

O'HARA: There are allegations that the North Korean government siphons off food aid to feed its army or to reward its cronies.

Natsios, now a professor at Georgetown University, says that even under the old program, it was virtually impossible to track all food shipments. He says there simply were not enough U.N. workers in North Korea to do the job, even if they hadn't been impeded by North Korean agents. Natsios says he's convinced that it's time for the World Food Program to pull the plug in North Korea, where he says people undoubtedly are hungry, but are no longer starving.

Prof. NATSIOS: There are other areas of the world where people are dying of hunger. I don't actually see why, given the demands in other areas of the world, that this program is still continuing.

O'HARA: But Tony Banbury says the World Food Program is committed to feeding the hungry. So today, Banbury says, food processing will resume in at least one of its factories in North Korea, with distribution set to resume by the end of next week.

Vicky O'Hara, NPR News, Washington.

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