World Food Program resumes suspended North Korea aid

The World Food Program is working on plans to resume food aid to North Korea, but to a much smaller number of people, after the U.N. agency suspended its operation there at the government's request, a WFP spokesman said Friday. The WFP shut down programs in December that had been feeding some 6 million North Koreans after the government asked aid agencies to switch to development assistance. The impoverished North has relied on foreign donations for a decade to feed its people.

The new plan would include economic development assistance while also feeding pregnant women, children and others, said Gerald Bourke, a WFP spokesman in Beijing. He said staff members in Pyongyang were working on the details, including how many people would be fed. The proposal is to be presented to the United States, Japan and other donors for approval at a meeting in February, Bourke said. He said the earliest that it could take effect would be March.

"Donors are reasonably aware of what we have in mind. Their initial response has been encouraging," Bourke said. The new program probably would feed fewer than half the 6 million people that the agency tried to supply with food last year, he said. The plan was developed after WFP executive director James Morris visited Pyongyang in mid-December in an unsuccessful effort to persuade the North to let aid continue. Aid workers said the timetable to switch to development aid was too short and could leave people hungry.

The North ordered nongovernmental aid groups in November to leave after the European Union introduced a U.N. resolution criticizing its human rights record. North Korea has relied on foreign food aid since disclosing in the mid-1990s that its state-run farms had collapsed after the loss of Soviet aid and decades of mismanagement. Famine is believed to have killed 2 million people.

But the government of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il says harvests have improved enough to supply its needs with help from China, the North's main ally and aid donor, and South Korea. North Korea's intensely secretive government also is eager to limit the number of foreigners in the country. The new WFP plan would cut the agency's staff of 32 foreign employees in North Korea by perhaps half, Bourke said.

The United States and other donors have insisted that WFP employees monitor food distribution to ensure it isn't diverted to the North's huge military or to reward supporters of Kim's government. The WFP shut down five regional offices and 19 food factories in North Korea in December following the government's request, and Bourke said it wasn't clear how many might reopen.

"Basically, because this is going to be a significantly smaller operation in terms of tonnage of food and numbers of international staff, it cannot be countrywide," Bourke said. "It will have to be more focused, more targeted." U.S. officials have suggested that Washington might not be able to support a program that is deemed development, because American law bars all but emergency humanitarian aid to North Korea.

But Bourke said the effort would be called a "protracted relief and recovery operation," not development. "My assumption is that if this operation incorporates a level of monitoring that would satisfy the Americans, then they could continue to give," he said. "I hope I'm right in saying that", reports the AP. N.U.