BEIJING (Reuters) - The top U.N. food agency said on Monday it was halting food aid to hundreds of thousands of desperate North Koreans because of an unprecedented slump in donations.
The shortfall, coinciding with a political standoff between Washington and Pyongyang, had forced the World Food Programme (WFP) to cut supplies to people in the east of the isolated country after saying late last year it would halt aid to 2.9 million in the west.
"What we're having to do now, because the resourcing situation has not improved, is to start cutting off beneficiaries in the eastern half of the country," WFP spokesman Gerald Bourke said in an interview.
"To have to make cutbacks in that area is extremely serious because these are among the people in North Korea who are suffering most," he said.
The food agency's first cutbacks to the east since beginning operations in North Korea in 1995 would affect more than 300,000 primary school children, around 200,000 elderly and about 75,000 care givers, he said. The country has a population of about 22.2 million.
The new cutbacks to the Communist nation, branded part of "an axis of evil" by U.S. President George W. Bush and now embroiled in a nuclear row with the United States, would begin this month.
More contributions were needed urgently in an absence of commitments for 2003 from key donors the United States, Japan and South Korea.
The programme needed more than 100,000 tonnes of food aid for the first half of 2003, in addition to pledges already secured, Bourke said.
A lack of donations of items such as skimmed milk and vegetable oil had also led to the closure of several agency-assisted factories that produced enriched food for millions of malnourished children as well as pregnant or nursing women, he said.
The agency, which had planned to feed 6.5 million North Koreans in 2003, has made numerous aid appeals since October when Washington said Pyongyang had admitted to a secret nuclear programme despite a 1994 promise to abandon it.
Washington last pledged aid to the food programme in June 2002, citing worries about monitoring distribution in the North and limited access.
Pledges to donate commodities and money from the European Union and Italy since last October would help feed some of those desperate for aid in the coming months, Bourke said.
He said the WFP has slashed its target for 2003 from an initial appeal for 512,000 tonnes.
"Because of missed opportunities, the amount required for the full year has dropped to 370,000 metric tons," he said, adding the figure is in addition to the 70,000 tonnes already pledged by the EU and Italy.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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