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World Food Program Fights to Stay in North Korea

The World Food Program is trying to persuade North Korea to let it continue providing food aid to millions of North Koreans who could go hungry despite what is expected to be a bumper crop this year.

Complaining of what they say is excessive monitoring, North Korea's Communist leaders have told a number of aid agencies working in the country to close their offices - while ordering others to downsize by the end of the year.

Talks in Rome between the World Food Program and North Korean officials have broken off without an agreement.

Richard Ragan, the World Food Program's country director in North Korea, spoke in Beijing Monday. He told reporters the North Korean government has been saying it wants to ease dependence on the outside world.

"The fact that they're saying 'we want to end humanitarianism because we're concerned about creating a culture of dependence' is not particularly a bad thing, as a policy matter," said Mr. Ragan. "But, the reality is that there are still people who need help in this transitional period."

Pyongyang expects a bumper harvest this year following an intensive food production campaign that has included mobilizing city dwellers to the countryside, where they are put to work on farms.

However, aid agencies say malnutrition among children in North Korea still tops 37 percent. They say this is due in large part to an infrastructure that has been dysfunctional since the North Korean economy collapsed in the 1990s, as a result of mismanagement and the loss of Soviet-era subsidies.

Analysts say North Korea's decision to curtail the activities of foreign agencies has more to do with the reclusive regime's opposition to international monitoring. Government officials have publicly complained about foreign aid workers traveling to the countryside, speaking with locals and asking questions.

Observers also say North Korea prefers to receive the massive aid that South Korea is now offering, with virtually no conditions attached. For the past 10 years, the United States has by far been the largest donor of food to North Korea.