Humanitarian relief organizations routinely monitor food deliveries to needy countries to ensure they reach the intended recipients. Until recently, one country has been exempted from these procedures: North Korea.

A senior administration official gave this account the other day when discussing how North Korea deals with U.N. World Food Program officials assigned to monitor donated food deliveries in that country:

If WFP officials wish to visit a site, they must provide the North Koreans with six days notice. Surprise inspections, the norm in virtually all other recipient countries, are forbidden. This generates concerns that the food is being diverted to pro-regime North Koreans.

In advance of any visit, the Pyongyang authorities warn the local population, often by loudspeaker, that only those citizens who are well-fed and well-dressed are allowed to appear in public during the visit.

The WFP is not permitted to bring its own Korean-speaking translators to the site. When a WFP monitor interviews a North Korean to inquire about food deliveries and nutrition levels, the monitor must rely on a government-supplied translator. It is never clear to the monitor whether the translation is accurate.

There are no assurances that, when the WFP makes a request to visit a site, it will be approved. Indeed, the North Koreans have decreed 25 percent of the country's 206 counties to be off limits.

The senior official, who asked that his name not be used, said that when the WFP, with substantial U.S. input, decided to start helping North Korea in 1995, the agency waived normal monitoring procedures because the needs were so great.

The situation worsened during the latter half of the decade, reaching crisis proportions during the 1996-98 famine; millions are believed to have died.

Washington's frustrations over the North's restrictions on food monitoring are shared by the WFP.

John Powell, former Asia director of the WFP, spoke to a House International Relations Committee hearing last spring. "We are not satisfied because we are not able to make random spot checks," he said. "We are not satisfied because we are not able to bring Korean speakers into North Korea as WFP staff members."

Weeks later, the Bush administration decided to tighten its criteria for donations for North Korea. Approval of food deliveries would be linked to North Korea's willingness to permit an expansion of independent monitoring and on competing food needs elsewhere.

Administration officials insist that the new criteria, announced last June, are unrelated to Pyongyang's nuclear weapons programs. They note that the policy change was made public about a month before the administration became aware of Pyongyang's secret program to develop uranium-based nuclear weapons. The official policy is to keep decisions on food relief free of political considerations.

U.S. food deliveries totaled 155,000 metric tons last year, but there is uncertainty about future shipments. North Korea has not responded to U.S. demands for improved monitor access.

Budgetary considerations are another issue. The administration has asked for $1.18 billion for food relief worldwide for 2003. If Congress takes no action, the administration would then have only $900 million at its disposal, the same as the previous year's appropriation. This would mean that far fewer mouths would get fed at a time when the needs — especially in Africa — are increasing.

In Ethiopia, there is a developing food catastrophe, with outside needs estimated at 1.5 million tons, dwarfing even North Korea's requirements. Starvation looms in six other African countries: Lesotho, Swaziland, Mozambique, Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

So where does all this leave North Korea? It's very much up in the air, says State Department spokesman Richard Boucher.

"We certainly want to see the monitoring questions resolved," Boucher says. "If they're not resolved, that would become a factor in determining how to allocate our resources."