Is North Korea's dictatorial regime quietly profiting from U.N. emergency food supplies delivered to its starving people, even as the regime squeezes those deliveries down to a trickle?
Documents produced by the World Food Program, the U.N.'s flagship relief agency, outlining its current emergency operations in the insular communist state, raise a number of touchy questions about the financing and logistics of the effort, which was originally intended to feed some 6.2 million of North Korea's most vulnerable people, but which is currently providing limited rations only to 1.33 million.
The $500 million program was meant to run from September, 1, 2008 to November 31, 2009, to deliver nearly 630,000 tons of food aid to North Korea at a time when it is suffering from severe flood damage and fertilizer shortages that have led to local food price increases.
Currently, WFP says that only $75.4 million worth of food aid has been delivered under the emergency program, as international donors have recoiled at the Kim Jong Il regime's recent nuclear detonation and provocative missile launchings toward Japan and Hawaii.
WFP emergency relief program documents obtained by FOX News show that from the outset the food agency planned to pay extraordinarily high transportation costs for sending relief supplies to North Korea from around the world--about a dollar for every two dollar's worth of food aid shipped into the country under the program.
Moreover, enormous sums were involved: $130,334,172 for “external transport” of 629,938 tons of grain and other food relief supplies for the overall program. (The food supplies themselves are projected to cost $297,396,729.)
For comparative purposes, the “external” shipping costs planned by WFP for the aid program average about $206.90 per metric ton of food aid .
Those rates were described as “absolutely ridiculous” by an expert on bulk shipping consulted by FOX News, even for sending goods by international shipping carriers to the remote region that includes North Korea. Another international grain expert consulted by FOX News described them as “way out of line” with past and present international shipping rates for bulk grain and other basic food commodities.
What WFP has not revealed in its documentation until questioned by FOX News, however, is that a substantial, but unspecified, amount of that money is intended to move the emergency aid from China to its final North Korean destination via shipping firms owned by the Kim Jong Il government.
Nowhere in the WFP program documents, which appeared on WFP's public website only after Fox News began raising questions about them, is there any mention of the North Korean shipping involvement.
Even though WFP has not revealed how much of the $130-plus million in planned “external transport” money Kim Jong Il's shipping firms are in line to receive, an analysis of the current costs involved in getting such supplies to their second-last destination reveal that the amount slated to pay for the last leg of the journey to North Korea could be huge.
A WFP spokesman blamed the overall high cost on “ the remote geographical location of [North Korea] from place of procurement (normally Black Seas, South Africa and South America).”
All WFP food aid, he added, was first shipped to the northern Chinese port of Dalian, before moving on to the North Korean port of Nampo.
But the spokesman then added that high costs were also due to “the lack of competition of transporters for transshipment” between Dalian and Nampo.
In fact, shipments to and from Dalian, China, one of the major centers of China's huge export sector, are commonplace and hardly expensive by international standards. Data kept by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, for example, shows that grain shipments from Brazil to China between April and June of this year have varied from $32.50 to $42 per metric ton.
Moreover, those international shipping rates have been on a precipitous downward slide since June, 2008-three months before the WFP aid program began. Even allowing for higher rates from the Black Sea and South Africa, international shipping experts told FOX News that the rates would come nowhere near $206 per ton-especially as there is currently a surplus of international shipping capacity.
The same, however, apparently can't be said of transport between Dalian and Nampo-a distance of 210 nautical miles.
There, the WFP spokesman said, WFP relies entirely on “feeder vessels belonging to the [North Korean] government.”
Asked late last week by FOX News to provide specifics of the rates charged by North Korean vessels for carrying international food aid home, the WFP spokesman did not provide an answer before this article was published.
However much the Kim Jong Il regime charges for bringing food to its people, it is not the only money that WFP provides to Kim for humanitarian assistance.
The WFP documents show that the government was to receive an additional projected $5,039,504 as a transport fuel subsidy if the relief program gets back into full swing. The “fuel reimbursement levy” amounts to $8 per ton of aid delivered, and according to the WFP spokesman, is normally not provided to countries that receive food aid-they are expected to chip in for this cost on their own--except under a waiver that North Korea has been granted.
So far, the Kim regime's National Coordinating Committee, a subsidiary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, has received $1.16 million under this waiver since September 2008, with the promise of an additional $361,400 to come. The WFP spokesman emphasized that the money was not paid in hard currency.
The same apparently applies to $4,409,566 intended by WFP to enhance a “capacity building strategy of government counterparts” envisaged in the relief plan. According to the WFP spokesman, this means management training and information systems upgrades for the Kim government to handle the new food aid. WFP is also paying for warehouses and equipment to handle the aid. So far, the regime has only $103,200 of the projected total, with another $155,000 committed.
Amid all the fuzzy math of the WFP relief program, there is a final quirk: the inexplicably high transportation costs work to the benefit not only of the Kim regime, but also to the benefit of WFP.
As a matter of standard practice, WFP charges a standard 7% management fee against “direct operational costs” of such relief efforts to support its worldwide operations, over and above the costs it incurs in the specific relief exercise. These, in WFP-speak, are known as the organization's “indirect support costs.”
Based on direct operational costs in North Korea of $445,033,971-including the $133.3 million in “external transport” costs-- WFP expected to reap $32,948,811 as its 7% share of “indirect support costs.”
Its 7% “indirect support” levy on the extraordinary $130.3 million transport bill would amount to about $9.1 million.
George Russell is executive editor of Fox News