- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 18, 2003

NEW YORK — The Bush administration-nominated director of the World Food Program this week warned that Washington’s possible suspension of assistance to North Korea could have a terrible impact on the country’s hungriest people.

The United States, which accounts for half the organization’s assistance to the Stalinist nation, has said it is reconsidering sending 66,000 tons of cereal and rice if the North Korean leadership does not allow the WFP to properly monitor food shipments.

WFP officials said the supplies could run out as early as next month, which would exacerbate the impact of the country’s “lean season” between planting and harvesting.

The State Department on Monday said the Bush administration might withhold some 66,000 tons of food assistance if Pyongyang does not allow relief workers to properly track where the international assistance is going.

“Unfortunately, North Korea continues to restrict access and monitoring, which is still a major concern,” said State Department spokesman Adam Ereli.

The United Nations concurs.

“They are interested in the same issues we are — accessibility, accountability and transparency,” said James Morris, director-general of the WFP, in an interview at his New York office Wednesday.

But once aid delivery has been halted, he said, it can take months to start back up.

“We are getting to the point where there is going to be a serious break in our pipeline … . We need to finish our work for the rest of the year,” Mr. Morris said.

“There is a sense of urgency here,” he added, noting that it takes time to gather, transport and distribute tons of cereals.

If the United States does suspend its assistance to North Korea, some of the dozen other donor nations could follow its lead, according to Mr. Morris, an American agribusiness executive who joined the Rome-based WFP nearly two years ago.

South Korea has already delivered more than 100,000 tons of food aid to the North, meeting its pledge for the year. But next-largest-donor Japan — which has soured on North Korea since Pyongyang admitted having kidnapped Japanese citizens — has cut off its 100,000 tons of annual assistance.

After years of drought, floods, and unscientific farming methods, the exhausted North Korean soil is not nearly fertile enough to feed its people.

Compounding the problem is a secretive central government that refuses to engage with most of the outside world, and treats foreign aid workers with deep suspicion. Because the economy has collapsed in the last decade, North Korea does not have the hard currency to buy food from foreign sources.

More than 4.6 million of the most vulnerable North Koreans depend on the WFP for emergency nutrition, including grains, beans and high-energy biscuits. The supplies are distributed through schools, orphanages, hospitals and facilities that care for the elderly.

But North Korean officials have refused to supply the WFP with a list of these feeding centers, and has hampered its efforts to conduct the same surprise inspections and monitoring efforts to which all other recipient nations submit.

The WFP operates in only 162 of North Korea’s 206 counties, roughly 85 percent of the country, because it is not allowed to monitor the remaining area.

The North Korean ambassador to the United Nations declined to comment for this article. Earlier this week, a Foreign Ministry official was quoted on government-controlled KCNA radio as rejecting U.S. and Japanese efforts “to put up political conditionalities on the humanitarian aid to the DPRK under the pretexts of the nuclear issue and the issue of abduction.”

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