North Korea has ordered international aid agencies to stop distributing emergency food by the end of the year, which is likely to hurt efforts to monitor food distribution within the impoverished nation. It comes as South Korea faces criticism for its direct food transfers to the North.
The U.N. World Food Program has handed out emergency food in North Korea since Pyongyang asked the agency for help in halting a famine in 1995. Now, says WFP spokesman Gerald Bourke, Pyongyang is telling the organization to stop.
"They are saying that now, after 10 years of emergency assistance, things have gotten better in terms of the humanitarian situation - they are receiving food from other sources," he said.
Those other sources, says Mr. Bourke, are mainly China and South Korea, which regularly transfer large amounts of food aid directly to the North Korean government with little or no monitoring of where it goes.
Just months ago, the World Food Program had made urgent calls for more aid to help it feed almost six million children, pregnant women and elderly people in the North. Mr. Bourke says that aid will stop by January.
Aid agencies say North Korea has made it clear it wants less food aid monitoring, which the World Food Program says helps it make sure the food goes to the neediest. Human rights groups say unmonitored food transfers allow Pyongyang to feed its military and political elite, while allowing large sections of the population to go hungry.
North Korea is telling agencies to shift their focus to "development assistance" by January. What that means has not been precisely spelled out, but it is expected to focus on producing more food. Aid agency officials widely agree it will mean far fewer personnel monitoring where food goes in the Stalinist country.
Kathi Zellweger, of the Catholic charity Caritas, says North Korea's food situation is still too severe to shift entirely to development programs.
"Right now, humanitarian aid, rehabilitation, and development work, they still belong somewhat together, and they need to take place simultaneously," she stressed.
North Korea's economy declined rapidly in the early 1990's, after the former Soviet Union and other once communist governments stopped aid, causing shortages of fuel and machinery parts. Then bad weather cut crops for several years.
As a result, many aid experts say, more than a million people may have died of hunger and disease. Aid has eased the worst of the shortages, but millions of people still reportedly are undernourished.
South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun told cabinet ministers this week to plan for even more aid to North Korea if there is progress in multinational talks aimed at ending its nuclear weapons programs. Although the six nations involved in the talks agreed Monday on a statement of principles, North Korea has since taken a more belligerent tone.