- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 18, 2005

BEIJING — The United Nations will end a decade of emergency food shipments to North Korea by January at the request of the impoverished nation’s government, which says it has enough food coming from other sources, a U.N. official said yesterday.

Richard Ragan, head of the U.N. World Food Program’s (WFP) office in Pyongyang, said the agency will focus on development projects in North Korea. Discussions are continuing with donors to find support for the shift, he said while in Beijing.

North Korea in the past has requested that emergency food aid be halted, and Mr. Ragan said officials of the communist regime told him they think they now are able to meet their food needs.

“They claim they have enough food coming in from other sources,” he said, indicating that that included aid from South Korea and increased trade with China. “They didn’t want to create a culture of dependency.”

North Korea has relied on foreign aid to feed its about 23 million people since disclosing in the mid-1990s that its government-run farm system had collapsed. Famine has killed an estimated 2 million people.

Since starting emergency aid in 1995, the WFP has distributed about 4 million tons of food worth $1.5 billion to North Koreans. The assistance has fed, on average, about 6.5 million people per year.

North Korea’s government has blamed the country’s food shortage on natural disasters and loss of outside support after the collapse of the Soviet Union at the start of the 1990s. But others say outdated farming technology and a refusal to reform also are to blame.

Mr. Ragan said the shift to development assistance already was under way and that about three-quarters of WFP’s work in North Korea, such as managing 19 factories to reprocess food, could be considered to fall under that category.

Despite the Pyongyang’s assertions that it can feed its people, Mr. Ragan said problems remain.

“We still believe there are large numbers of people in the country who are struggling to meet their basic food needs,” he said.

Mr. Ragan said people who don’t get enough food from North Korea’s nationwide distribution system must rely on new private markets, which have been hit by quadruple-digit inflation.

For example, rice costs the equivalent of about 12 cents a pound at the markets — about an eighth of the average worker’s monthly pay.

North Korea’s harvest should be in by the time aid shipments stop, Mr. Ragan said, but he added that U.N. agencies were not permitted to conduct their regular annual crop survey in the country.

“The jury is still out on whether they’ll have a successful crop or not,” he said.

Some of the food aid pledged to North Korea but scheduled to arrive after January either will be diverted to other countries or included in the new development program, Mr. Ragan said.

That includes a shipment pledged by the United States, which has provided food aid to North Korea despite the standoff over Pyongyang’s nuclear-weapons ambitions.


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