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N. Korea Must Ease Restrictions on Aid Agencies, says UN - 2002-08-05

The United Nations says North Korea has to make it easier for aid agencies to work in the isolated communist nation if it expects the international community to continue providing humanitarian assistance.

The U.N. World Food Program is having trouble getting money and food donations for an emergency program to feed 6.4 million North Koreans this year. The problem is so serious, the U.N. organization was forced suspend food distribution to more than a million people last May.

Kenzo Oshima is the U.N. undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, who just returned from a visit to North Korea. He told reporters in Beijing the WFP's situation could get worse soon. "Without additional contributions, WFP will no longer be able to provide food assistance to large numbers of hungry people after September," he said.

Mr. Oshima says some progress is being made, but the North Koreans need to do much more to bring the nation up to the operational level UN agencies have in other countries. "We still do not have any access to 43 counties," he said. "We need to be allowed to engage in more spontaneous monitoring, to visit institutions and public distribution centers more randomly and without the need for lengthy pre-notification and planning procedures. I have told the government that without these operational requirements, we may not be in a position to convince donors to continue to meet the level of support needed for our assistance to the DPRK," referring to North Korea by its full name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

Mr. Oshima says only 163 of North Korea's 206 counties are open to humanitarian assistance programs. He says that although the food appears to be getting where it is supposed to, the situation in North Korea is still "precarious."

Even so, Mr. Oshima welcomed North Korea's decision to conduct a joint nutritional survey with the World Food Program and UNICEF, the U.N. children's organization. The last such survey four years ago showed high rates of wasting and stunting among children under seven years old.

North Korea has suffered widespread food shortages for years. Pyongyang has admitted that a quarter-million people died at the height of a famine ending in 1998, but some estimates put the figures as high as two to three million deaths.