The World Food Program, which at one point was feeding almost 6.5 million North Koreans, says it has bowed to Pyongyang's demands and will wind down its food operations in the country by the end of this month.
WFP Executive Director James Morris told reporters in Beijing Thursday that his agency will stop all emergency food aid activities in North Korea by the end of this month.
"The government there has concluded that it no longer needs emergency humanitarian assistance," he said. "They have asked the humanitarian community to complete its work by the end of this year."
Mr. Morris, who just concluded a visit to Pyongyang, said the North Korean government has asked the WFP to continue working in the country, but to provide "developmental aid" instead of emergency food rations.
He says the agency needs more time to consider that proposal, and plans to hold further discussions with Pyongyang over the next few weeks. "It is clear that they want us to stay, and we want to stay, but we have to be able to stay in a context that will give us a chance to be successful," said Mr. Morris.
The U.N. agency has been providing food aid to North Koreans since a devastating famine began 10 years ago. As many as 2.5 million people have reportedly died of starvation and related conditions, and at its height, the WFP program was feeding 6.4 million people.
Although the North no longer faces the famine, foreign aid officials say the country still suffers from food shortages, and is unable to feed its 23 million people adequately. The WFP says the number of chronically malnourished children remains high.
Over the decade, the WFP has become North Korea's largest aid donor. But it has demanded that its staff be allowed to monitor where the food donations go, and analysts believe Pyongyang fears the agency is gaining too detailed a look at conditions in the isolated country.
North Korea also receives large amounts of food aid from China and South Korea, which impose little or no conditions on where their food goes. Analysts believe this, combined with a good harvest this year, has given Pyongyang the confidence to reduce the number of foreign aid workers.
Pyongyang has told the WFP to reduce its 32-strong foreign staff if it wants to maintain its presence. The country is also expelling other aid agencies.
Mr. Morris's comments came as North and South Korean officials met in South Korea on inter-Korean issues. No progress was reported after two days of talks, and South Korean officials said the North had rejected attempts to raise the issue of its nuclear weapons programs.
Six-nation talks on the programs were set to resume sometime early next year, but Pyongyang now says it will boycott the talks unless the United States removes the sanctions it has placed on certain North Korean companies.