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North Korea urgently needs more food aid, and fewer restrictions

BEIJING - The United Nations World Food Programme will have to halt distributions to millions of hungry North Koreans within weeks unless fresh pledges are made soon, the agency warned today, urging the Pyongyang government to facilitate vital donations by easing restrictions on the monitoring of aid.

"Many in the DPRK [Democratic People's Republic of Korea] who desperately need our food will suffer even more if we don't get additional contributions fast," Tony Banbury, WFP's director for Asia, said in Beijing. "We're doing our best to mobilise support, but we need more help from the authorities in Pyongyang."

"We shouldn't have to choose between feeding hungry kids and feeding hungry elderly people, yet that is the decision we now face."

Already obliged to stop providing enriched vegetable oil to more than 900,000 elderly people, funding shortfalls will force WFP next week to suspend distribution of vegetable oil to 600,000 kindergarten and nursery children, and pregnant and nursing women. High in protein, vegetable oil is an essential promoter of physical and mental growth.

Should resource shortfalls continue, at the beginning of May, 1.2 million children and women will to be deprived of WFP pulses, a key source of scarce protein. And from June, nearly one million vulnerable North Koreans will have to go without supplementary rations of cereals, the agency's staple provision.

"As things stand, we'll be scraping the bottom of the barrel within two months," Banbury said following a four-day mission to the DPRK to review the humanitarian situation and meet government officials. "And we have almost no food in the pipeline for the second half of the year."

WFP's 2005 emergency operation seeks 500,000 tonnes of food, valued at US$200 million, to help feed 6.5 million North Koreans deemed most at risk out of a population of 23 million. To-date, some 215,000 tonnes, worth US$70 million, has been secured, almost all of it committed last year.

Reduced donations in 2002-2004 left WFP, by far the largest aid agency in the country, unable to provide crucial, supplemental rations to millions of the hungriest for long periods.

No less than 37 per cent of North Korean children are chronically malnourished, or stunted, and one-third of mothers are malnourished and anaemic, according to the findings of a large-scale, random sample survey by UNICEF, WFP and the DPRK government released earlier this month.

While domestic food production has been rising slightly, and the volume of external assistance sought by WFP declining, this year's cereals gap is forecast at almost 900,000 tonnes, about 20 per cent of the minimum required to feed the population.

In January, the government-run Public Distribution System, the main source of cereals for the 70 per cent of the population living in urban areas, cut its subsidised ration from 300 grams to an average of 250 grams per person per day - less than 40 per cent of the internationally recommended minimum.

The plight of the most vulnerable is aggravated by an economic adjustment process initiated in mid-2002 that has led to steep increases in market prices of basic foods, and sharply lower incomes for millions of factory workers rendered redundant or now employed part-time. Market prices of cereals tripled in 2004, and continue to rise.

Banbury said the tightening last year of DPRK government restrictions on WFP's ability to monitor food aid and assess needs had undermined international support for the agency's operation.

The government's review of operating conditions appeared to be motivated at least in part by significant concessions obtained by WFP over the previous two years. These included a significant increase in the number of monitoring visits and greater freedom to gather data about food availability, prices, incomes, consumption patterns and coping mechanisms. This ensured a better understanding of needs and better targeting of assistance.

Banbury said he hoped that a new monitoring regime, agreed in principle by the government, would further improve the quality of monitoring and thereby boost donor support.

"It is imperative for WFP and our donors to have confidence that the food aid goes where it should: to the hungriest of the hungry. The new monitoring arrangements are an important step in that direction, and need to be properly implemented."

WFP is the world's largest humanitarian agency; each year, WFP provides food aid to an average of 90 million people, including 56 million hungry children, in more than 80 countries.

For more information please contact (email address: firstname.lastname@wfp.org):

Gerald Bourke
WFP/Beijing
Tel. +86-10-65323731 ext 5209
Mob. +86-13801054051