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ARI SHAPIRO, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Ari Shapiro.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne. A U.S. ship has pulled into a port serving Pyongyang, North Korea, carrying tens of thousands of tons of wheat. That delivery yesterday opened the door to more food for millions of North Koreans facing hunger. Today, the World Food Program announced it is expanding its operations in North Korea to bring in enough food to feed at least five million people. That's more than 20 percent of the population.

Joining us to talk about the developments is Tony Banbury. He's the World Food Program's regional director for Asia.

Hello. Thanks for joining us.

Mr. TONY BANBURY (Regional director, World Food Program): My pleasure.

MONTAGNE: Now, North Korea is famously opposed to outside intervention. And in this case it is allowing the WFP - the World Food Program - to bring in enough staff, like six times more staff than you've had previously. Why would it be doing that right now?

Mr. BANBURY: The food security situation in North Korea is bad, and it's getting worse. They've had two bad harvests in a row, and the food that in the past they've received through bilateral channels - from China, from South Korea - has really dried up. And so they've reached an agreement with the United States for a large food aid operation, and that food will be provided through the World Food Program and some American NGOs. And it represents a real breakthrough in the country in terms of our ability to meet the needs of literally millions of people.

MONTAGNE: What can you tell us about the details of the agreement? What are you going to be allowed to do and what are the limitations?

Mr. BANBURY: It's a very significant agreement the WFP has signed with the North Koreans on Friday - just this past Friday. It allows us to increase our staff from 10 international staff to 59. We're going to reopen sub offices around the country. For the first time ever, we'll be allowed to hire Korean speakers for the operation, so we can, in our monitoring visits, have them speak directly with the beneficiaries. We're going to have only 24 hours advance notice for visits, as opposed to the prior practice of one to two weeks. So there are some very significant improvements in how we're going to carry out our operation, as well as the big expansion that we've talked about.

MONTAGNE: Now, we've just been hearing news of international efforts to get North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons. The news at this point in time is positive. Does the arrival of this food shipment have any connection to that?

Mr. BANBURY: The WFP has been saying for years that more than 5 million people need food aid, and we've been aspiring to expand the operation the way this agreement called for for a long time. Fortunately, the climate of trust between the DPRK authorities and other governments, especially the United States, has improved. And I think that improving trust and the overall climate has given the parties greater confidence to move forward with this type of program, which really does require the parties to trust each other, that the food is going to be used for the right purposes.

MONTAGNE: Just briefly, how bad is the food situation in North Korea?

Mr. BANBURY: Well, the food situation is really bad and getting worse. And we've been warning about that for several months now. And now, with this new agreement, we finally have the chance to provide much needed assistance to the millions of people who have been going without it.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much.

Mr. BANBURY: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Tony Banbury is the World Food Program's regional director for Asia.

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