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6 million North Koreans to lose humanitarian food aid

BEIJING—The World Food Program will halt humanitarian food aid to 6 million North Koreans at the end of this month because the North Korean government says it now has enough food to feed its hungry people, the WFP director said Thursday.

The closure of the World Food Program's humanitarian assistance comes as North Korea expels about a dozen nongovernmental aid groups after European condemnation of its human rights record. The North Korea dictatorship holds political prisoners and denies its citizens basic rights. The United States and regional partners want the isolated and secretive nation to give up its nuclear weapons programs.

The halting of the World Food Program aid appears to be the result of North Korean paranoia about foreigners wandering about in the country, increased economic aid from South Korea and China, and an uptick in agricultural output.

Recent harvests have improved North Korea's food situation, prompting its government to demand that the Rome-based World Food Program switch its focus in the country from feeding people to development assistance, such as construction and jobs programs.

"The government there has concluded that it no longer needs emergency humanitarian assistance," James Morris, the World Food Program director, said at a news conference, adding that government officials think "they essentially have the food they need."

Morris said his agency thinks "there still is a food shortage in the country," and that as many as a third of North Korean women remain anemic and in need of nutritional help.

A survey last year found that 37 percent of the children still were chronically malnourished, or "stunted," and 7 percent of them were acutely malnourished, or "wasted," Morris said.

The WFP food program, which has delivered $1.7 billion in food aid to alleviate famine and malnutrition in North Korea in the past decade, has made huge inroads in bolstering the health of the country's pregnant women and malnourished children, Morris said.

Even so, WFP food assistance for 6 million people is winding down and will halt entirely by Dec. 31, said Richard Ragan, the country director for North Korea.

"We will not feed anybody past the end of December," Ragan said. "We are only feeding 600,000 people today ... so we are very much in a closure mode."

Until recent weeks, the humanitarian aid program ran 19 food factories throughout the country, providing subsistence rations to 2.7 million children, 300,000 women and millions of other poor people in the country of 23 million citizens.

During a two-day visit to Pyongyang, North Korea's capital, Morris said he'd had "good conversations" with Cabinet ministers, but that they'd made it clear that North Korea, which also is known as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, wanted to slash the WFP's international staff in the country. Once numbering 47 foreigners, the staff now numbers 32 foreigners, he said.

"I suspect that they are uncomfortable with what they would consider to be a large number of non-DPRK citizens wandering about in the country," Morris said.

North Korea also chafed at WFP efforts to monitor food distribution to ensure that the aid arrived in the hands of those most in need.

North Korea didn't say how many foreigners it might allow the WFP to station in the nation if it revamps its program and is permitted to remain, Morris said.

Foreign groups who've been asked to leave North Korea by early next year include the Irish aid group Concern, Britain's Save the Children, the French groups Handicap International and Premier Urgence, and Sweden's PMU Interlife. The expulsion follows a European Union-sponsored U.N. resolution last month criticizing the North Korean dictatorship's poor human-rights record.

Morris said the U.N. food agency still was uncertain how many of the 20 donor nations that had provided emergency grain for North Korea in recent years would go along with a new orientation toward development assistance.

"The issues are tough, and we now have to take some time to think it through and make a good decision," Morris said.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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