The United States is accusing the U.N. development agency of allowing North Korea to illegally divert tens of millions of dollars in humanitarian aid funds for its own use. VOA's  correspondent at the United Nations, Peter Heinlein, reports Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is asking an external audit of all U.N. aid agencies.

The U.S. mission to the United Nations sent a letter this week to the U.N. Development Program (UNDP), charging that the agency's North Korea projects have been systematically used to benefit of the Kim Jong Il regime.

A copy of the letter signed by the U.S. ambassador for U.N. management and reform, Mark Wallace, and obtained by VOA suggests that tens of millions of dollars may have been illegally diverted to North Korea's coffers since 1998, with the complicity of the UNDP board of directors.

The story was first reported in Friday's edition of The Wall Street Journal newspaper.

Ambassador Wallace was not available Friday, and a U.S. mission spokesman declined to comment on the allegations. But U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, a former South Korean foreign minister, met urgently with UNDP Associate Administrator Ad Melkert to discuss the matter.

Mr. Ban has pledged to make the world body more accountable in the wake of damaging revelations of corruption in the Iraq oil-for-food program. The organization's reputation was also battered by cases of sexual abuse among peacekeeping troops.

Spokeswoman Michele Montas says Mr. Ban responded to these latest charges by calling for a comprehensive audit of all U.N. aid operations.

"The secretary-general will call for [an] urgent system-wide and external inquiry into all activities done around the globe by the U.N. funds and programs," she said.

The UNDP's Melkert told reporters Friday the agency's auditors had raised questions abut the North Korea operation as early as 1999, but that no action was taken.  He said in the context of the extreme humanitarian crisis facing ordinary North Koreans, and the government's refusal to accept U.N. oversight, the agency's board of directors had little choice but to go along.

"Everybody was very well aware.  That's why this historic context is important - that in a number of countries, the government is a negotiation partner, and the board was very much aware of those issues that were around in North Korea," he said.

After briefing Secretary-General Ban, Melkert said he was ordering several administrative changes aimed at preventing governments from perverting aid programs to their own advantage.

"All payments in hard currency to governments, national partners, local staff and local vendors will end, and we have set a date of, at the latest, March 1," he added.

Several Members of Congress Friday expressed outrage that Kim Jong Il's government had been able to manipulate the U.N. aid programs so easily.

Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the senior Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, issued a statement saying, "as far as anyone knew, he is using the money to pay for his nuclear weapons program instead of feeding his people."

On Friday, a U.N. diplomat, who requested anonymity, noted that the case was similar in some respects to the Iraq oil-for-food scandal.  An inquiry into that case showed that Saddam Hussein's government had been able to manipulate that humanitarian program to earn billions of dollars in defiance of Security Council sanctions.

The U.N. Development Program is the world body's main development agency, with an annual budget estimated at $4 billion.