BEIJING – The United Nations (search) will end a decade of emergency food shipments to North Korea (search) by January at the request of the impoverished nation's government, which says it has enough food coming from other sources, a U.N. official said Sunday.
Richard Ragan (search), head of the World Food Program's (search) office in Pyongyang, told The Associated Press the agency will focus on development projects in North Korea. Discussions are continuing with donors to find support for the shift, he said in a telephone interview while in Beijing.
North Korea has made requests to halt emergency food aid in the past, and Ragan said officials for the communist regime told him they believed they are now able to meet their food needs.
"They claim they have enough food coming in from other sources," he said, indicating that included aid from South Korea (search) and increased trade with China (search). "They didn't want to create a culture of dependency."
North Korea has relied on foreign aid to feed its 22 million people since disclosing in the mid-1990s that its government-run farm system had collapsed. Famine has killed an estimated 2 million people.
Since starting emergency aid in 1995, the WFP has distributed about 4 million tons of food worth $1.5 billion to North Koreans. The assistance has fed, on average, about 6.5 million people a year.
The North Korean government has blamed the country's food shortage on natural disasters and loss of outside support after the collapse of the Soviet Union at the start of the 1990s. But others say outdated farming technology and a refusal to reform are also to blame.
Ragan said that the shift to development assistance was already under way and that about three-quarters of the work the WFP is doing in the North, such as managing 19 factories to reprocess food, could be considered to fall under that category.
Despite the North's claims it can feed its people, Ragan said problems remain.
"We still believe there are large numbers of people in the country who are struggling to meet their basic food needs," he said.
Ragan said people who don't get enough food from North Korea's nationwide distribution system must rely on new private markets that have been hit by quadruple-digit inflation, Ragan said.
For example, rice costs the equivalent of about 12 cents a pound at the markets — about an eighth of the average work's monthly pay.
North Korea's harvest should be in by the time aid shipments stop, Ragan said, but he added that U.N. agencies were not permitted to do their regular annual crop survey in the country.
"The jury is still out on whether they'll have a successful crop or not," he said.
Some of the food aid already pledged to North Korea but scheduled to arrive after January will either be diverted to other countries or included in the new development program, Ragan said.
That includes a shipment pledged by the United States, which has provided food aid to the North despite the standoff over Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program.