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US Ships Food to North Korea Following Agreement to Expand UN Role

Help is starting to reach hungry North Korea. A ship carrying tens of thousands of tons of grain from the United States has arrived at a North Korean port. The shipment follows a North Korean deal with the World Food Program to expand its reach in the country. VOA's Kurt Achin reports from Seoul.

The American ship carrying 37,000 tons of wheat arrived Sunday in the North Korean port of Nampo. It is the first installment of half a million tons of food aid promised by the United States to the impoverished North.

Two days earlier, the United Nations World Food Program signed a new agreement with Pyongyang to bolster its presence in North Korea. Paul Risley, spokesman for the WFP's Asia operations, says the deal is great news for North Korea's malnourished population.

"It will allow for increased staff, it will allow for much larger amounts of food, and instead of feeding roughly one million people we feed presently, we will likely be able to feed close to the five million people we estimate are hungry," he said.

North Korea has experienced food shortages for decades as the result of self-imposed economic isolation and mismanagement of resources. The problem culminated in the mid-90s, when up to a million North Koreans are believed to have died in a famine. Last year's heavy flooding in the North, made worse by the population's clear-cutting of mountains for food and fuel, has severely impacted this year's harvest.

Friday's agreement with the WFP will put 50 WFP workers in North Korea over the next year, up from the current ten people. It also allows the teams to distribute food in areas previously off limits.

Risley says desperate times may have helped coax North Korea away from its usual reclusiveness.

"There is a growing awareness by the government of DPRK, and a growing openness toward an expanded international presence," he added. "In particular, when it comes to food assistance."

Risley adds, the U.S. shipment that arrived Sunday was contingent on the new WFP deal.

"The U.S. was reluctant to provide the first installment of its food aid until that agreement was reached by WFP and by the government," he said.

The World Food Program has a policy of only distributing food in areas where it can monitor distribution to ensure food reaches the most needy. Washington has expressed concerns in the past that unmonitored aid may be diverted to North Korea's military and political elite.

South Korea has not yet sent food aid to the North, but that may change soon as the result of progress in negotiations on nuclear weapons. Even without sending food, Seoul is assisting the North in its crisis: the World Food Program says South Korea puts up most of the funding for the agency's operations in the North