U.N. Approves Food Aid Program for North Korea

The World Food Program has approved a plan to resume food aid to hunger-stricken North Korea but it won't begin until the communist regime allows more access to monitor where the aid goes, the U.N. agency said Friday.

The two-year plan to feed 1.9 million people was approved Thursday by the WFP's board in Rome. But donors rejected the North's restrictions limiting the agency to 10 foreign staff members and sharply reducing their ability to monitor aid distribution.

"They asked us to go back to the government and seek better conditions," said Gerald Bourke, a WFP spokesman in Beijing. "We will not resume until we have a satisfactory set of operating conditions agreed with the government."

The North has relied on foreign aid to feed its 23 million people since disclosing in the mid-1990s that its state-run farming system had collapsed following decades of mismanagement and the loss of Soviet subsidies.

It asked the WFP last year to wind down feeding programs and switch to development assistance. The agency shut down its programs there in early December but says millions of hungry people still need aid.

The WFP board didn't set a specific target for numbers of foreign staff or inspections, Bourke said. But the agency had 46 foreign employees in the North last year and made 350 to 500 inspection trips each month to confirm that aid was reaching its intended recipients. The United States and other donors want to ensure that food isn't diverted to the North's military or supporters of its ruling party.

The secretive, isolated government of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il also expelled nongovernmental aid groups at the end of last year after the European Union proposed a United Nations resolution criticizing the North's human rights record.

The negotiations over renewed WFP aid come amid efforts to restart six-nation talks aimed at persuading the North to give up its nuclear programs.

The 36-member WFP board includes the United States, China, Russia and Japan — all participants in the nuclear talks. The donors say they keep aid decisions separate from efforts to pressure the North to give up nuclear development.

WFP executive director James Morris visited the North in December in hopes of negotiating continued access but reached no agreement.

The proposed new WFP program, expected to cost $102 million, would feed mostly women and children.

In line with the North's request for development aid, the plan would provide rations to "underemployed communities to build and rehabilitate agricultural and other community assets," the WFP said in a written statement.

In Washington, U.S. State Department deputy spokesman Adam Ereli said of the plan's approval: "We'll wait to hear from the WFP and evaluate any possible request on the basis of our criteria."