NEW YORK — The U.N. relief coordinator said yesterday that the North Korean government has asked him to shut down humanitarian aid programs by the end of the year and to focus on development — a shift that may mean little more than semantics, or which could deepen an already severe food crisis.
“My heart goes out to the children, really, of North Korea,” said Jan Egeland, head of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, who met yesterday with North Korean officials and asked them to accept gradual changes in some programs, rather than insisting that many of them terminate at the end of the year.
“Right now it is too soon,” Mr. Egeland told reporters before the meeting. Despite a stronger harvest and bilateral assistance from South Korea and China, he said, “our assessment is that they will not have enough food.”
The communist state also receives 70 percent of its medicine and all its vaccines from U.N. agencies or the International Red Cross.
North Korea has received significant food, medical and agricultural assistance since the mid-1990s, when natural disasters and insular government policies led to desperate poverty and shortages.
Since starting emergency aid in 1995, the World Food Program 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 a year.
On Thursday, North Korean Deputy Foreign Minister Choe Su Hon told the U.N. General Assembly that recent “good farming” meant that the country could now feed itself.
Humanitarian assistance is generally provided to a country or region in trouble, while development is considered an investment in sustainable infrastructure or other systems.
The government has also insisted that foreigners monitoring the aid distribution be limited to the capital city, rather than crisscrossing the country as they currently do, U.N. officials said.
But Mr. Egeland said that one harvest is not enough to compensate for U.N.-coordinated international assistance.
Nearly one-quarter of North Korea’s 23 million people currently receive U.N. assistance, including all children under 5, pregnant women and more than half the nation’s elderly.
But the prolonged effect of malnutrition is evident: the average 7-year-old in the north is 7 inches shorter and 20 pounds lighter than a South Korean child, according to statistics compiled by the United Nations.
Mr. Egeland indicated that Pyongyang might be willing to keep many programs in place if they were described as development assistance, rather than humanitarian aid — a face-saving description that might have little impact on the ground.
He said that development assistance would also be carefully monitored — a condition set by most donor nations. He said school-feeding programs, for example, could easily be called development assistance.
The U.N. official indicated yesterday that the fractious nuclear nonproliferation talks — marked currently by the North’s demand for a light-water reactor before it cooperates — probably had little to do with the shift in humanitarian assistance
“It has something to do with aid dependency and international integrity,” he said, noting that the capital finds 10 years of emergency assistance is long enough.
The key U.N. agencies in North Korea are the WFP, the Children’s Fund, the Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization, which provide high-protein food, medicines and vaccines, as well as help to build schools, clinics, water and sanitation facilities and other infrastructure.
Eleven nongovernmental organizations also operate out of Pyongyang, said Mr. Egeland, who said he did not know how many of them may be asked to leave.
In addition, China and South Korea offer significant assistance to North Korea, officially known as the DPRK, or Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. This aid is not subject to stringent international monitoring.
The United States traditionally underwrites more than half of the WFP’s $202 million budget for the DPRK, but it has only contributed about 5 percent this year, according to WFP spokesman Trevor Rowe. The program requires 500,000 tons of food this year, but has received just 270,000 tons from donors so far.
Andrew Natsios, the head of USAID, said in a recent interview that Washington had recently asked for more stringent monitoring of assistance, because it feared that food for vulnerable populations was being steered to the vast North Korean army.
He said the United States does not use food aid for political leverage, as North Korea’s government frequently contends.