NORTH KOREA'S HUMANITARIAN CRISIS GOES BEYOND RYONGCHON
SEOUL - While the international community has rushed to the rescue of victims of last month's deadly train explosion in North Korea, aid programmes to help millions of other needy people across the country remain critically under-funded, a senior United Nations official said today.
"The speed and scale of the response to appeals for the wounded and homeless of Ryongchon are as heart-warming as they are vital," Tony Banbury, the World Food Programme's director for Asia, told reporters in the South Korean capital, Seoul. "But we must not forget the broader humanitarian crisis that continues to deprive so many more of a very basic diet, drinkable water and decent healthcare."
Donors have committed almost US$30 million for victims of the 22 April blast near North Korea's border with China that claimed more than 170 lives, injured 1,300 and made nearly 8,000 homeless.
Banbury, who led a WFP mission that delivered the first international assistance to Ryongchon and 360 seriously wounded casualties at a hospital in the nearby city of Sinuiju on 25 April, reiterated his agency's pledge to meet the food needs of all the survivors over the coming months.
"We are providing nutritious, easy-to-eat meals for hospital patients and their families, full rations to those without a roof over their heads, and will help rebuild the devastated township through food-for-work programmes. We will do so until next autumn's harvest, and beyond if need be."
But Banbury noted that international donations for Ryongchon, which has 27,000 inhabitants, had surpassed in less than a fortnight the US$21 million mobilised by WFP so far this year for a US$171 million emergency operation that seeks to feed 6.5 million of North Korea's hungriest children, women and elderly people in 2004.
A fall-off in contributions has forced WFP to halt vital, supplemental rations to millions of designated recipients for long periods since mid-2002. In February, the agency all but ran out of cereals, its staple commodity. Recent shipments, including 38,000 tonnes of maize from the United States, have afforded some relief.
Yet the number of "core" beneficiaries not receiving WFP grain is set to rise from one million now to all 3.8 million in October, unless additional pledges are made soon. Tens of thousands of North Korean nursery and kindergarten children have had to make do without enriched vegetable oil - a key promoter of physical and mental growth - for the last six months.
The downturn in food donations risks eroding precious gains in nutritional standards. A survey by the government, UNICEF and WFP, conducted in late 2002, showed that four out of ten North Korean children suffered from chronic malnutrition, or stunting, compared to six out of ten in a 1998 assessment.
While increased agricultural production in recent years has reduced the country's cereals gap, and the need for external assistance, its food crisis is likely to persist owing to the limited scope for higher output.
Urban residents outside the relatively privileged capital, Pyongyang, heavily reliant on a Public Distribution System (PDS) providing 300 grams of food a day - less than half a survival ration - are worst affected by the domestic shortfall.
Economic adjustments initiated in mid-2002 have aggravated disparities in access to basic foods between better-off rural populations and those in urban areas accounting for some two-thirds of the country's 23 million people.
The government's push for efficiency - and profit - has deprived long-ailing factories of official support, forced large-scale lay-offs, cut incomes and inflated the prices of staples in private markets where the laws of supply and demand are becoming more assertive.
Interviews by WFP staff indicate that 70 per cent of PDS-dependent households are unable to cover their daily calorie requirements. Much of the population is afflicted by critical dietary deficiencies, consuming very little protein, fat and micronutrients.
WFP's operating conditions in North Korea are a persistent concern, according to Banbury. "Existing restrictions limit our ability to properly monitor distributions and measure needs. We've made progress, especially in the last year or so, but we have some way to go to reach international standards. We will continue to work with the Pyongyang government on this."
Banbury, visiting Seoul to brief officials on his week-long mission to North Korea in late April, said the Republic of Korea remained one of the largest suppliers of aid to the north through WFP. "While the overall volume of assistance through us has declined significantly, the South Korean government has maintained its commitment at 100,000 tonnes annually in each of the past three years. We are deeply grateful for this crucial support."
WFP is the world's largest humanitarian agency: in 2003 we gave food aid to a record 104 million people in 81 countries, including 56 million hungry children.
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