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UN: North Korea Still Needs Food Aid Despite Improvements - 2001-11-03

The World Food Program's representative in North Korea says the food situation in that country has improved, but warns that the overall humanitarian picture there remains bleak and international aid must continue.

After battling droughts and floods for the last six years, North Korea will likely see its best harvest in years. But that will not be enough to end the country's reliance on international food aid according to the World Food Program's North Korean Representative, David Morton. "The food shortage we anticipate for 2002 will be 1.47 million tons," he said.

Speaking to journalists here in Beijing, the North Korean-based Morton says the World Food Program hopes to provide 610,000 tons of assistance, with contributions from other donors making up the difference. Last year eight million North Koreans, or roughly one third of the population, relied on World Food Program assistance for survival.

The decade-long famine has so far claimed an estimated quarter-million lives.

Better weather, greater use of farm machinery and increased supplies of donated fertilizers and diesel fuel have helped the politically isolated communist state produce a cereal harvest that is 38 percent larger than last year's. But with winter fast approaching, the World Food Program's biggest concern is to ensure the food shipments, which are currently scheduled to end in January, continue on.

And Morton says it's not only food the North Koreans are in need of. "The humanitarian situation has improved but it is still very serious. Health conditions have deteriorated in terms of the services at hospitals," he said. "I have been getting reports that the number of people going to hospitals has decreased because there are simply no drugs and medicines available to give to people."

One major hurdle the World Food Program continues to face is the hardline North Korean leadership which refuses to allow the agency to monitor where the donated food is going. "We are not satisfied with our ability to verify that. WFP has up to 56 international staff now, 10 more than last year, but we are not able to make random spot checks," he said.

Many observers accuse the North Korean government of selling the donated food to its citizens and of giving it to the military instead of those most in need, including children and young mothers.

What worries aid workers is that this lack of cooperation by the hardline North Korean regime combined with the looming Afghan refugee crisis may make it difficult for the World Food Program and other aid agencies to justify sustaining current levels of food provided to North Korea in the future.