- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 5, 2007

BEIJING — Unable to feed millions of its people, North Korea has made an abrupt about-face and asked the World Food Program to increase its aid, an official with the U.N. agency said this week.

After a visit to the isolated nation, where hundreds of thousands died from famine in the 1990s, WFP Asian regional director Tony Banbury said officials told him that the food shortage amounted to 1 million tons. “They have asked WFP to expand assistance to meet the gap,” Mr. Banbury told reporters in Beijing.

The shortage represents at least 20 percent of North Korea’s food needs, meaning that up to a third of its 23 million people will need food assistance until the harvest arrives this year, he said.

The request signals an abrupt turnaround by the Stalinist regime, which announced cutbacks to a decade of WFP assistance at the end of 2005 after trying to rid itself entirely of its dependence on the agency.

The shortfall was exacerbated last year as the scaled-back program coincided with floods in June and August that devastated critical farmland.

“Right now we are losing the fight against hunger in the [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea]. The DPRK faces a chronic food security problem,” Mr. Banbury said.

The WFP is engaged in a two-year assistance program with North Korea that aims to provide 150,000 tons of food aid for 2006 and 2007. This amount is enough to feed only 3 percent of its population, Mr. Banbury said.

From 1996 to 2005, North Korea was the largest recipient of WFP aid, but the regime routinely balked at the agency’s food-monitoring activities, carried out to ensure that aid reached the most needy, he said. The WFP has sought to ensure that the food reaches children, nursing and pregnant women, and the elderly, Mr. Banbury said.

The WFP delivered more than 4 million tons of food valued at $1.7 billion and supported up to one-third of the North Korean population during the 10-year period starting in 1995.

As the crisis worsened, the WFP faced increasing problems raising donations for North Korea from around the world because of disenchantment over its nuclear and other weapons programs.

Donating countries also have voiced concerns that the regime channels food aid to the military, the political elite and key cities such as Pyongyang, the capital.

The United States, South Korea, Japan and China, the main providers of assistance to North Korea, reduced shipments last year, Mr. Banbury said, as the isolated nation tested a nuclear weapon and ballistic missiles. He said the WFP doesn’t link North Korea’s food needs to the politics surrounding its nuclear program.

“Our support is not to the DPRK government; it is to the DPRK people,” Mr. Banbury said.

He welcomed a Feb. 13 agreement at six-party disarmament talks in which China, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the United States agreed to supply North Korea with more aid if it dismantled its nuclear-weapons programs. The talks have been under way since 2003, and under this agreement, North Korea should shut down and seal its plutonium-producing Yongbyon reactor and other plants by April 14 in exchange for energy aid.

“We are hopeful that there will be a conclusion of those discussions soon and that the parties involved in those talks will provide assistance through the WFP,” Mr. Banbury said. “The problem is we can’t wait. The people of the DPRK can’t wait.”

The WFP has begun to look for increased aid from donor nations within the framework of the ongoing two-year aid package, Mr. Banbury said.

“If the donors don’t respond, millions of people will go hungry,” he said.

CIA Director Michael V. Hayden told South Korean Defense Minister Kim Dong-shin this week, “The United States does not recognize North Korea as a nuclear power because its nuclear test last year was a failure.”

A South Korean defense source also said Mr. Hayden stressed the importance of exchanging intelligence on North Korea between Seoul and Washington.

“The United States has a large amount of intelligence on North Korea, and South Korea has many experts who understand well North Korean sentiments and culture,” the CIA chief was quoted in the newspaper JoongAng Ilbo as saying. “U.S.-South Korean intelligence exchange is crucial to analyze North Korea’s decisions,” he added.

The Defense Ministry confirmed the Hayden-Kim meeting but refused to comment on what was discussed. The U.S. Embassy had no comment on the CIA chief’s visit.

U.S. officials said in October that air samples had confirmed a nuclear test but that the explosion yield was less than 1 kiloton. South Korean officials also said they thought the test was only a partial success.

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