- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 1, 2005

ROME — North Korea is sending millions of people from its cities to work on farms each weekend — another indication that the risk of famine is particularly high this year, a U.N. official said yesterday.

The U.N. World Food Program (WFP) is the only aid organization that has a presence outside the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, and its officials have reported the movements of the North’s people from cities to farms, said Anthea Webb, spokeswoman for the Rome-based agency.

“It’s not a new phenomenon, but it certainly caught our folks’ attention in terms of the size and the scale,” she said. “I suppose also we’re so worried about the situation, it’s one more sign that things aren’t going well.”

The isolated North has depended on outside support to feed its 24 million people since the 1990s. An estimated 1 million North Koreans starved to death after the Stalinist regime’s state farm system collapsed after decades of mismanagement and the loss of subsidies from Moscow.

In Beijing on Tuesday, world aid agencies called for food assistance to North Korea to be stepped up despite a stalemate in talks to end its nuclear program, saying the communist regime still faces tremendous shortages affecting millions of people.

The WFP recently launched a new appeal for food donations, saying the supplies that let it feed 6.5 million North Koreans were dwindling and forcing it to cut off aid to children and the elderly. That followed a WFP request to governments for 500,000 tons of food for North Korea this year.

Of the $202 million that the agency appealed for this year, it has received about $72 million — and practically all of it has been consumed, Miss Webb said.

“Unless something happens very soon, by the end of August, the only people we’ll be feeding are 12,000 children in hospitals,” she said.

She said a combination of factors was making 2005 particularly at risk for famine. Although the harvest was not any worse than expected this year, it is combined with declining WFP food aid, government reforms that have driven up prices and cuts in government rations, she said.

“Our people are beginning to be very concerned that this combination of factors in a worst-case scenario could put us back to a situation of the early ‘90s,” she said. “The potential for famine is quite strong.”

North Korea is under increasing pressure to return to international talks on its nuclear weapons program. Although the United States and other donors say they do not link the nuclear standoff to humanitarian assistance, Washington has not decided whether to continue giving the North food this year.

Washington gave 50,000 tons via WFP last year — half of what it gave in 2003. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher has said decisions on food aid are not affected by political considerations.

Monitoring of food aid distributions is a major concern for donors, who fear food is being diverted to the North’s military or political leaders.

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