Published July 15, 2009
EDITOR'S NOTE: An update to this story, which appears at the bottom, was posted on July 15.
Alongside its military posturing, North Korea's bellicose dictatorship is continuing to put new restrictions on United Nations relief organizations operating in the country, which are the main lifeline for its starving population — a fact that apparently leaves the Kim Jong Il regime unmoved.
A spokesman for the World Food program has confirmed to FOX News that on July 3, the emergency relief organization was ordered to limit food deliveries to 57 of the 131 North Korean counties it previously served. At the same time, the agency was told that it must give seven days' notice of visits to oversee food deliveries at all of its relief sites — a sharp change from the one-day notice previously required under a deal to retain U.S. support for North Korean relief efforts. As a result, the spokesman said, WFP is "reviewing the current terms and conditions for our work" in North Korea, "to ensure that our work and our accountability is not compromised."
Additional constraints were also slapped on the child relief organization UNICEF in June, according to a spokesman, Chris de Bono. He told FOX News that the regime banned UNICEF from operating in its northerly Ryanggan province, which borders China, and is one of the impoverished country's poorest areas. UNICEF still operates in 56 other counties across North Korea.
The restrictions make even more dire the food situation in a country where starvation and malnutrition are widespread, even as the Kim regime continues to set off atomic blasts and fire missiles in the direction of Japan and Hawaii.
Furthermore, they once again raise questions about the U.N.'s ability to monitor whatever relief activities that remain in the country. UNICEF's spokesman told FOX News that only WFP had won the right to 24-hour notification for inspection visits, and that all other U.N. institutions in North Korea have operated with the one-week request limit as a matter of course.
UNICEF has ten international staff and 20 local staffers in North Korea. None of the international staff speak Korean. The agency is budgeted to spend $13 million a year on North Korean operations, principally on food for infants, children and pregnant women, along with emergency vaccination programs, essential medicines and clean water supplies.
But nowhere near that amount of money from international donors is currently available. According to its Web site, UNICEF has received only 10 percent of the total, or about $1.3 million, undoubtedly a result of the North Korean regime's aggressive pursuit of nuclear weapons. Unless more money is received soon, the UNICEF spokesman said, "it will be difficult to maintain the current level of operations and this will have serious negative consequences for children and other vulnerable people."
The same funding shortfall applies to the World Food Program, which told FOX News a month ago that donor nations had provided only $75.4 million toward a 2009 goal of $503 million for North Korea, with more than half of that amount — $38.8 million — food aid that was not delivered in 2008.
The only other U.N. agency that has significant operations in North Korea, the United Nations Population Fund, reports that it has received no curtailment in its activities, but it only operates in 11 North Korean counties. It was slated to spend roughly $8.3 million in North Korea between 2007 and 2009, chiefly for birth control and other forms of "reproductive health" and for helping the regime collect population statistics.
Nonetheless, a big question mark still hangs over the North Korean operations of the United Nations Development Program, the U.N.'s major anti-poverty agency, which suspended operations in North Korea in 2007 in the wake of revelations from an independent inquiry that it had wrongfully provided millions in hard currency to the North Korean regime, ignored U.N. Security Council sanctions in passing on dual-use equipment that could conceivably be used in the country's nuclear program, and allowed North Korean government employees to fill key positions.
The North Korea case also led to a major crisis of the United Nations' whistleblower protection system, after UNDP refused to follow the recommendations of the U.N.'s chief ethics officer, Robert Benson, and pay a penalty for violating the rights of a UNDP whistleblower who brought UNDP's North Korean rulebreaking to light. UNDP has not changed its position.
UNDP's governing executive board voted last January to allow the agency to return to North Korea, providing that it corrected its previous abuses and win North Korean agreement. A UNICEF spokesman was quoted last month as saying that two UNDP staffers were in Pyongyang, working on reopening UNDP's office.
Queried by FOX News, a UNDP spokesman revealed that one UNDP staffer was currently in North Korea "in temporary premises." The main focus of UNDP activity was indeed on renovating its office building, which "is in a state of disrepair following two years of non-use."
UNDP's actual operations in North Korea, however, "have yet to resume," the spokesman said. "We are monitoring the situation carefully," he added. "Full operational capability is not expected for some time to come."
That said, the spokesman underlined that the latest Security Council resolutions imposing additional sanctions on North Korea for its nuclear brinkmanship "exempts humanitarian and developmental activities which affect civilian populations."
George Russell is executive editor of FOX News.
After this story appeared, a spokesman for UNDP objected that the FOX News account mischaracterized the U.N. ethics officer’s ruling in the North Korean whistleblower case.
The spokesman pointed out that U.N. ethics officer Robert Benson had not found UNDP guilty of violating the whistleblower’s rights. Instead Benson found that the independent inquiry that examined the scandal had created a “due process failure” in publishing allegations that besmirched the character of the whistleblower, a former UNDP operations manager named Artjon Skurtaj, without giving Skurtaj an opportunity to respond. Since the investigation panel, which was created and selected under UNDP’s aegis, had disbanded, Benson ruled that UNDP should pay the penalty instead. (Benson set the figure at 14 months of Skurtaj’s final salary.)
“This is a finding against the panel and not against UNDP,” the spokesman said.
The spokesman also denied the story’s assertion that UNDP has not followed Benson’s recommendation to pay the penalty. “Mr. Shkurtaj initiated legal proceedings with the U.N.’s internal justice system in regards to this case,” the spokesman said. “As a result of his decision, it was decided that UNDP would wait for that process to be terminated before any action is taken. That process is continuing.”
Attorney George Irving, who is representing Skurtaj in the proceedings with the U.N.’s justice system, declared the UNDP spokesman's assertions to be “blatant misrepresentation.”
Skurtaj had filed a legal claim, Irving said, precisely because UNDP had refused to pay the penalty recommended by ethics officer Benson.
Skurtaj had “no other choice,” Irving said. “We offered to settle all claims simply in return for implementing the [Benson] recommendation, as has been done in other cases.”
The UNDP spokesman’s assertion “that he has to await the outcome is not true,” Irving added. “It is UNDP — as well as U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, that are dragging this out as long as they can.”
Legal documents Irving filed with the United Nations Joint Appeals Board restate the charge of UNDP’s refusal to follow Benson’s recommendation, specifically cite one other case where UNDP allegedly paid a staffer penalties on Benson’s recommendation without a fight, and ask for an additional nine months’ salary for Skurtaj, over and above the 14 months' pay recommended by Benson, to compensate for the delay and the expense of pursuing the claim.