New N.Korea food aid pledges only a beginning - WFP

SEOUL, March 4 (Reuters) - Recent food donations for North Korea have helped the World Food Programme restore rations to many vulnerable people in the communist state but they will run out soon, the U.N. agency said on Tuesday.

Monitoring troubles, competing disasters elsewhere and donor distaste at a North Korean government that spends its resources on arms and may be building nuclear weapons have taken a toll on aid to the impoverished country in recent years.

Rick Corsino, WFP country director for North Korea, said on Tuesday additional pledges of more than 325,000 tonnes were needed for the rest of 2003 as donations had fallen short of the target of 512,000 tonnes of food for 6.4 million people.

Two consecutive years of severe floods in the mid 1990s, followed by a year-long drought, set off a near-famine that forced North Korea to make unprecedented appeals for international food aid.

Relief agencies at the time reported peasants were eating grass to survive. Unconfirmed estimates of deaths resulting from starvation have reached into the millions, while as many as 300,000 North Koreans are thought to have fled to China.

Corsino welcomed recent donations from the United States and the European Union, saying the aid would allow a temporary resumption of distribution and a re-opening of some WFP-supported food factories shut down when aid dropped off last year.

"The commitments to date are very important, because they will ensure that many of the children, women and elderly people currently deprived of outside support are fed again," Corsino said in a statement from Pyongyang, the North's capital.

"It is also crucial that more contributors come forward quickly, because there is nothing in the pipeline beyond June."


The appeal came a week after U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, during a visit to South Korea, announced an initial U.S. contribution for 2003 of 40,000 tonnes of food aid.

Powell said a further 60,000 tonnes of U.S. aid would be made available if North Korea allowed improvements in the WFP's ability to monitor distribution.

The WFP said an EU-funded contribution of 46,000 tonnes of wheat was due to begin arriving in North Korea next week and would be used to feed children in nurseries, kindergartens and primary schools, and pregnant and nursing women.

Corsino said the WFP would continue pushing for better access.

"While our operating conditions have improved over the years, they are still more restrictive than in other recipient countries. Above all, we are not allowed to carry out truly random spot checks at distribution sites," he said.

U.N. officials say the North Korean army takes the bulk of the country's domestic food crop of preferred rice, but does not take food aid that takes the form of less desirable grains.

But North Korea spends about a third of its meagre annual gross domestic product on arms, funding a million-strong army, as well as costly missile development and a suspected nuclear arms programme.

U.S. military sources in Seoul said recently Pyongyang spends about $100 million each year on imported luxury cars and liquor for its elite, whose loyalty is the key to maintaining leader Kim Jong-il's rule in the state his father set up in 1948.


Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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