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UN Food Agency Fears Sanctions Will Exacerbate Hunger in North Korea

The World Food Program fears international anger over North Korea's nuclear test may discourage nations from donating food to feed millions of malnourished North Koreans. Officials warn that a drop in donations could mean those millions will go hungry in the coming months.

World Food Program leaders consulted with officials of donor nations in Rome Tuesday, in a bid to keep food aid flowing into the North, despite the international outcry over Pyongyang's nuclear test last week.

Sanctions imposed on North Korea by a U.N. Security Council resolution Saturday do not forbid humanitarian aid. However, Tony Banbury, the WFP's Asia regional director, says his agency is worried that the prevailing international outrage toward the North will prevent millions of North Korean people from receiving rations as they head into winter.

"Even before the nuclear test, there was serious reservation among many donors, including the United States, about the aid programs in the country, and the [nuclear] test is obviously only going to heighten the overall concerns and worsen the general environment," he said.

WFP officials say that as of yet, no nation has said it will suspend humanitarian aid, but they note that the United States and Japan - the two main donors to the WFP's North Korea program - had been holding back donations even before the nuclear test.

The Bush administration has said it will not use food as a weapon. However, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Monday that Pyongyang has not agreed to the kind of transparency that will guarantee food aid reaches those North Koreans who really need it - rather than the country's well fed elite.

Aid groups and diplomats in the past have voiced suspicions that food aid was being diverted to the military and others close to the Kim Jong Il regime.

The WFP estimates seven million out of North Korea's 23 million people are suffering from malnutrition. The Stalinist country has been enduring food shortages for years as a result of mismanagement, natural disasters, and the loss of Cold War-era subsidies from the former Soviet Bloc countries.