- Associated Press - Monday, July 4, 2011

BRUSSELS (AP) — The European Union said Monday it will restart food aid to North Korea after the country’s repressive communist regime agreed to an unprecedented monitoring system as it suffers through its worst food crisis in years.

The EU will send 10 million euros ($14.5 million) in food aid to North Korea after food production in the country hit a new low and an EU mission of experts confirmed a growing hunger crisis in northern and eastern provinces. An unusually cold winter and other severe weather conditions have diminished recent harvests in North Korea, while food aid from China, which has experienced droughts and floods recently, also has declined.

“The purpose of this aid package is to save the lives of at least 650,000 people who otherwise could die from lack of food,” Humanitarian Aid Commissioner Kristalina Georgieva said in a statement.

The EU stopped humanitarian aid to North Korea in 2008 when it determined that it was no longer necessary. However, it has continued to support long-term nutrition projects in the country, which has had chronic food problem for years.

Because of the repressive and closed-off nature of the North Korean regime, aid to the country long has been controversial. But following warnings from the United Nations and the World Food Program, EU experts traveled to North Korea in June to examine the situation and, together with the World Food Program, which will manage the aid package, negotiated a strict monitoring system with national authorities.

The EU experts determined that state-distributed rations, on which two-thirds of North Koreans depend, have been cut in some parts of the country by more than 60 percent, to about 400 calories, the EU said.

Even severely malnourished children in hospitals and nurseries are not getting any treatment, and many citizens have grown so desperate that they are eating grass, the EU said.

The aid will flow through North Korea’s highly centralized state-run food distribution system, but authorities will grant international inspectors access to all parts of the supply chain, the EU said.

The WFP will check delivery at every stage and pay more than 400 visits a month to distribution sites, hospitals, child-care facilities and households, the EU said.

“If at any stage we discover that the aid is being diverted from its intended recipients, then the commission will not hesitate to end its humanitarian intervention,” Ms. Georgieva said. “We simply cannot allow people to die of hunger, and for this reason we are determined to monitor the delivery at every stage.”

The aid will focus on malnourished children under the age of 5, pregnant and breast-feeding women, and sick and old people.