BEIJING, March 17 (Reuters) - The first big shipment of U.N. food aid for North Korea in months has arrived there, raising hopes more than two million people could be fed over the next two months, the World Food Programme (WFP) said on Monday.
The arrival of food worth 9.5 million euros ($10 million) from the European Union coincided with an increase in donor pledges that diplomatic sources say could be aimed at calming Pyongyang in its tense nuclear standoff with Washington.
The crisis over North Korea's suspected nuclear-weapons programme has mounted steadily in recent months while the United States and its allies have been focusing most of their attention on the standoff with Iraq.
WFP spokesman Gerald Bourke said about 39,500 tonnes of wheat was being unloaded at Nampo on North Korea's west coast and another 8,000 tonnes had arrived at Hungnam in the east.
"This is the first significant shipment to arrive in months," he said. "It will allow us to resume distributions that were previously suspended."
The shipment of EU-funded wheat bought in China followed a pledge by the United States on February 25 to donate 40,000 tonnes of food to North Korea this year and an additional 60,000 tonnes if North Korea improved the WFP's ability to monitor the use of its aid.
A promise by South Korea on Friday to supply rice on credit to North Korea until 2005, starting with 432,000 tonnes this year, and a recent pledge by Germany to give the WFP three million euros in cash also reflected global efforts to keep North Korea calm, diplomatic sources said.
"There seem to be efforts by the international community to buy time in North Korea, to try and appease Kim Jong-il," said one Beijing-based diplomat, referring to the leader of the reclusive Communist state.
But Bourke said the WFP still urgently needed more pledges of aid to cover its plans to feeds millions of hungry North Koreans in the second half of this year.
About 32,500 tonnes of food, including 18,200 tonnes of cereals, were needed urgently to cover WFP operations from April to June while about 245,000 tonnes were needed for the second half of 2003, Bourke said.
"While there is more being pledged, we are still very concerned about the second half of the year," he said.
"We have big needs that remain to be filled and we have many uncertainties," he said in reference to economic reforms launched in North Korea in July 2002 that threaten to increase the number of laid-off workers and exacerbate hunger among vulnerable groups. (US$1=0.9278 euros).
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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