BEIJING – The World Food Program (search) issued an emergency appeal Monday for aid for North Korea, saying the agency's supplies have nearly run out and it is cutting off food to almost all the 6.5 million people that it feeds there.
WFP will be able to feed only about 100,000 North Koreans — mostly women and children — over the next two months, said Masood Hyder (search), the U.N. agency's representative in the North.
"A food crisis is on us at the wrong time," Hyder said at a news conference in Beijing. The agency is trying to feed more than one-third of the North's 23 million people.
The United States, Russia and others have pledged thousands of tons of grain and other food since WFP warned late last year that its supplies were running low, Hyder said. But he said those shipments won't start arriving until late March due to the difficulty of moving such vast amounts of commodities.
"We are trying all emergency measures ... including asking whether the [North Korean] government itself can give us a short-term loan," he said. It isn't clear how much food the secretive Stalinist dictatorship might have in its own stockpiles.
The North has relied on foreign aid to feed its isolated populace since revealing in the mid-1990s that its agriculture had collapsed after decades of mismanagement and the loss of Soviet subsidies.
The WFP appeal comes against a backdrop of mounting tension over the North's nuclear programs. Diplomats from the United States, the Koreas, China, Japan and Russia are to meet in two weeks in Beijing for their second round of talks on the standoff.
Despite the diplomatic tensions, two leading critics of the North's nuclear program (search) — Washington and Seoul — are among its biggest aid donors. The United States is sending 38,000 tons of grain, due to arrive in late March.
Though foreign donors are making a "valiant effort" to separate politics from aid decisions, international tension "certainly affects humanitarian assistance," Hyder said.
Referring to the nuclear talks, he said, "as the political context improves, certainly the possibility of a more generous response might be affected."
Figures given by Hyder indicated that the WFP has as little as 3,000 tons of food left in the North. The agency's plans call for distributing about 40,000 tons of food a month — mostly rice, wheat, corn, sugar and high-protein wheat biscuits.
The agency doesn't expect mass fatalities from starvation, Hyder said. But he said malnutrition and other health problems would surge among North Koreans whose daily aid rations of about 17.5 ounces of food already were considered the bare minimum needed.
"You have people in fragile and recovering health who would suffer a setback," he said.
Hyder said his staff of some 40 foreign workers couldn't confirm foreign reports that North Koreans were eating bark to ward off hunger.
Foreign donors have given more than 8 million tons of food to North Korea since the mid-1990s. But the WFP has struggled in recent years to meet aid targets for the North, getting as little as 60 percent of the food it needs each year.
WFP has blamed the drop partly on competing aid demands from Afghanistan and Iraq.
Japan, once a major donor, has withheld supplies recently, citing the North's failure to resolve the issue of its abduction of Japanese nationals in the 1970s and '80s.
Other governments express frustration at the North's limits on the ability of aid agencies to monitor who receives food. The United States and others say they worry that supplies might be diverted to North Korea's 1 million-member military or supporters of leader Kim Jong Il.
Hyder said the WFP has seen no signs of food being diverted to the military.
He said soldiers have first claim on harvests and prefer rice to the other grains that make up the bulk of aid donations, so it seemed unlikely that they would seize the aid.
Nevertheless, Hyder also appealed to North Korea: "Continue to lift monitoring constraints."
Despite minor economic reforms in recent years that include the opening of farmers' markets, Hyder said the WFP doesn't foresee a time when the North can survive without aid.