ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
This weekend is the deadline for aid organizations to end humanitarian relief programs in North Korea. The North Korean government set that deadline. The aid programs helped the Communist nation emerge from a famine in the mid-1990s. The United Nations World Food Program is the most affected by this decision and has already dramatically scaled back its work. Closing the WFP's offices closes a window into one of the most isolated nations in the world, as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.
MICHELE KELEMEN reporting:
Richard Ragan, who's been running the World Food Program's office in Pyongyang, used to get out to the North Korean countryside to monitor his program and visit WFP's food-processing factories. He was also able to interview North Korean families about their food needs. But when he gets back to North Korea from the holidays, he'll be living under more restrictions.
Mr. RICHARD RAGAN (World Food Program): We'll limit all of our work mainly to the capital. At this point we've closed the five field offices that we had around the country. And then we had 19 factories, which employed over 2,000 people, 80 percent who were women--we've closed all those factories as well.
KELEMEN: Ragan said he'll be working along two tracks: preparing to leave while at the same time trying to negotiate some way to stay.
Mr. RAGAN: To work in North Korea, you have to be a glass half-full person. You always want to be optimistic that you can get the job done.
KELEMEN: But a deal is far from certain. Ragan says the North Koreans want to see a much smaller staff, a program aimed at long-term development rather than immediate food needs, and they want to change the way the World Food Program monitors its work. The US, a major donor, has suspended its latest food shipment, according to State Department spokesman Adam Ereli.
Mr. ADAM ERELI (US State Department): Until and unless we can be sure that the food we give is really going to the people who need it, then we can't continue to provide aid. And with North Korea calling for all foreign assistance to end, then obviously those criteria can't be met.
KELEMEN: North Korea has had a better-than-expected harvest this year and continues to get aid from South Korea and China with few strings attached. Marcus Noland of the Institute for International Economics says because of this, Pyongyang is unlikely to allow adequate monitoring for any future WFP program. So Noland says the UN agency and the US may have to thrown in the towel.
Mr. MARCUS NOLAND (Institute for International Economics): At some point one decides to stop banging your head against the wall in North Korea and simply redeploy those resources to a place like Aceh in Indonesia or Malawi in Africa or some other place in which humanitarian relief is needed and the government is more supportive of your fundamental mission.
KELEMEN: Noland says this would be unfortunate for two reasons. Analysts have learned a lot about North Korea through World Food Program monitors. And unlike other donors, the UN agency did try to make sure the aid got to those who really needed it. Noland is also worried about another development. North Korea is reviving a centralized food distribution network.
Mr. NOLAND: It is an attempt to shut off the market, force people to go to this government-controlled public distribution system, which then the government can use food as a political mechanism to control the population. If you are deemed politically loyal, you will get more food; if you are deemed politically unreliable, you will get less food.
KELEMEN: Richard Ragan, the World Food Program's country director, said North Koreans faced extremely high inflation rates at food markets.
Mr. RAGAN: Before the public distribution system was revitalized, people were spending as much as 80 percent of their income on food. That's clearly unsustainable.
KELEMEN: But he's skeptical that North Korea will be able to manage the logistics of such a massive distribution program. Economists are also warning that North Korean farmers may respond by hoarding their harvest, which could lead to another food crisis in North Korea next year. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.
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