May 11, 2006 -- In an agreement reached Wednesday in Pyongyang and announced today, the United Nation's World Food Program will resume food aid to North Korea within two weeks. The renewed program, which will be significantly smaller than the one that ended in December 2005, was allowed to resume as North Korea once again faces severe food shortages.
WFP's regional director for Asia Tony Banbury called the agreement "an important breakthrough."
"We have worked hard to reach this point, now we have signed the deal, and we can restart our food aid operations immediately," Banbury said.
The program is aimed at the most vulnerable of North Korea's impoverished population and intended to improve nutritional deficiencies within the country. Specifically, it will target women and children in the country's poorest regions.
The United States, however, has not given any food to North Korea since the previous program's suspension and will not participate in the new program, citing concerns about the delivery of such aid within North Korea. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said today that the United States continues to have concerns about "the ability to monitor whether or not these humanitarian food shipments do, in fact, get to those who are most in need."
While McCormack did say that acceptable monitoring is not the only determining factor in whether the U.S. will provide food aid, he also indicated that the presence of regional offices would offer some reassurance that the aid's distribution is receiving adequate oversight.
The agreement, the WFP admits, is not ideal.
"It's not everything we wanted, but it's a sound base to get started again. ...WFP will maintain our long-standing policy of 'no access, no food,'" Banbury said, referring to the need for direct WFP oversight of the aid's distribution in the country.
Indeed, the WFP staff that will administer the program in North Korea will visit organizations such as hospitals, orphanages and other distribution centers to ensure that the aid is delivered and to assess the effectiveness of the program.
The food aid agreement, the result of months of negotiation, will allow for a significantly scaled-down program to operate in North Korea through mid-2008. To carry out the progam, 150,000 tons of food will be needed to feed 1.9 million of North Korea's 23 million people, and it will cost $102 million. The previous program fed around 6.5 million people in the isolated communist country, a WFP spokeswoman said.
Whereas the previous program extended to 163 counties in North Korea, the new diminished program will reach only 30 counties. The WFP spokeswoman said the 30 counties were chosen because "there was greatest need there," and after extensive surveying they were determined to be the "most vulnerable."
The agreement provides for only 10 WFP staff members to administer the program in North Korea, down from more than 40 under the old program, the spokeswoman said.
North Korea was unwilling to allow a larger WFP presence in the country, Banbury said. Of the 10 WFP international staff members, four will be employed full-time in the field, while the others -- such as the country director -- will travel regularly to visit field operations.
The previous program, which was in place for 10 years, ended in December 2005 when North Korea essentially cancelled the aid program and ejected the WFP from the country. At the time, North Korea was confident that better harvests would ensure an adequate domestic supply of food. It also cited its desire to end a dependence on foreign food aid and complained about the monitoring mechanisms, which the government deemed too intrusive. North Korea then announced that it would only accept development assistance and no longer accept food aid.
WFP currently has 12,000 tons of food stocks in North Korea, which will only last about two months. The new program will distribute enriched foods produced by local factories to young children and pregnant and nursing women. This week the first factory is expected to begin production of a rice-milk blend after having gone unused since last November.
North Korea remains one of the most impoverished and malnourished countries in the world. Although malnutrition rates have dropped since the late 1990s, an October 2004 survey conducted by WFP, UNICEF and the North Korean government found that 37 percent of young children in the country were chronically malnourished and 33 percent of mothers were both malnourished and anemic.
By comparison, according to UNICEF's 2005 State of the World's Children report, while 21 percent of children under 5 years old in North Korea are moderately or severely underweight, only 1 percent of the children in the United States suffer from the same conditions.