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UN Calls for Increased Funding to Feed North Korea's Hungry

Valerie Amos, UN humanitarian chief, speaking to reporters at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade in Seoul, October 24, 2011.

The United Nations' humanitarian chief is calling for the international community to put aside political concerns and increase funding to feed North Koreans. Valerie Amos, who visited the reclusive country last week, says chronic malnutrition is a serious concern. But she says Pyongyang itself needs to do more to convince a skeptical world of its needs.

Valerie Amos, the U.N. under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, told government officials and aid groups in Seoul Monday her five-day visit to North Korea reinforced her view of chronic malnutrition there.

She called for increased aid for the North, saying six million people in the impoverished communist state are surviving mainly on maize, cabbage and rice. She said food assistance is urgently needed this year amid a continuing annual gap of one million metric tons.

“The situation was partly exacerbated by flooding this year. However, we think that in terms of this year’s harvest, what might well happen is that the harvest is about the same or slightly better than last year. But you have to remember the extremely poor nutritional mix. People aren’t getting any protein [and] very few other kinds of nutrients,” Amos siad.

The United Nations is appealing for $218 million of food aid, but it is only one-third funded.

Amos says she was permitted to visit all locations in North Korea her delegation asked to see. They included a public market (where meat and fish were being sold), a government food distribution center, two hospitals, an orphanage and a communal farm.

Amos says she told North Korean officials that donor nations are understandably concerned about the lack of comprehensive monitoring of aid and the alleged diversion of food to the military.

“And that’s why I made the point to the authorities that data collection and information is absolutely critical. I also made it clear to the authorities before I went and when I was there that there was a great deal of skepticism,” Amos said.

The United States says it is still attempting to determine whether to provide the North food aid this year. It sent a team to assess the situation there five months ago but its report has not been released.

A second round of talks about Pyongyang's nuclear weapons programs are being held this week in Geneva between U.S. and North Korean officials. North Korea is under international sanctions because of its nuclear development.

South Korea has not provided substantial relief to the North since 2008. It says it made an offer to provide some aid after the recent flooding, but has not received a response from the North.

Amos says she also told authorities in Pyongyang they need to do more to address structural shortcomings that hinder efficient agricultural production and discourage foreign investment.