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UN food program inflated amount of oversight it gave to ensuring food really went to the starving in North Korea

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Apr. 9, 2014: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un attends the Supreme People's Assembly in Pyongyang, in this still image taken from video released by Kyodo.Reuters

The United Nations’ World Food Program failed to carry out sufficient inspections of food distribution sites in North Korea to ensure that supplies went to the country’s suffering people rather than the dictatorial communist regime, according to the U.N. agency’s own internal watchdog.

The same audit says the WFP inflated the number of monitoring tours that it made, and could not provide documentation to back up the North Korean government’s rationale for sometimes blocking the inspection visits.

Further, North Korean government staffers seconded to WFP operations had a hand in operating U.N. computer networks and data-bases, a situation that the watchdog warned “may lead to errors, omissions and potentially, fraud not being detected and remedied on a timely basis.” 

Moreover, even WFP’s knowledge of what aid supplies it has received from abroad are based on the say-so of a regime-run company that the watchdog says may be lying about the amount of work it does, overcharging the U.N. for the work—and in any case is doing it without a contract, which keeps the relationship legally invisible.

The conclusions are contained in an report by WFP’s Inspector General of the agency’s North Korean activities that WFP made public this week. Among other things, the 20-page document, written in circumspect language, also raised questions about the lack of official signed confirmation that relief goods had actually been received as recorded in WFP’s computer systems, and insufficient “transparency” in how it chose its suppliers, notably when it waived competitive bidding in the totalitarian state.

Many of those problems, WFP argues, could be laid to a simple lack of money and staff, as Western donors have further shied away from the bloody and belligerent regime of Kim Jong-Un, while it continued to press forward with an illegal nuclear weapons program despite tightening international sanctions.

In the case of North Korea, WFP in the past two years has been trying to raise $200 million to feed some 2.4 million of the country’s most vulnerable people. Those operations are currently only “21.3 percent funded,” according to a WFP spokesman. And as a result, the spokesman said, “WFP in 2013 distributed the lowest amount of food assistance [in the country] since 1996.”

That is, if all the supplies were actually distributed to the population. Ever since a U.N. scandal erupted in 2007 over the possible diversion of foreign exchange resources to the sanctioned regime, agencies have been trying to deal with the issue of how to guarantee that money and goods are not diverted to North Korea’s militarized regime, which has amply demonstrated its own scant regard for the welfare of civilians.

The problem has become even tougher as donor purse-strings have tightened, and especially since last spring, when the U.S. added North Korea’s Foreign Trade Bank to a list of sanctioned regime institutions. The bank was the main U.N. pipeline for transfer of funds for its operations in the country, and since then, some agencies have even been carrying bags of cash into North Korea to keep their operations afloat. 

The latest WFP auditor’s report covers the 18 months that ended in June 2013, and thus examines practices before the latest squeeze became that dramatic. What it shows is that while “a stable working relationship” existed between the U.N. agency and the regime, the issue of ensuring that aid could be fully accounted for, and that the regime did not find ways of siphoning money to its own purposes, remained seriously unresolved.

“The report makes clear that the WFP program in North Korea is unsustainable,” argues John Bolton, former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. and a Fox News contributor. “There is simply no evidence the WFP can prevent itself from being exploited by the North Korean authorities, so that food aid is allocated according to the regime’s priorities rather than by the needs of the people.”

CLICK HERE FOR THE REPORT   

For its part, however, WFP maintains that the problems it faces are more the result of under-funding rather than other issues. In response to questions from Fox News, the agency declared that the lack of aid money “directly undermines our ability to fully staff our activities in country, including management and monitoring, according to plans approved in project documents”—not to mention the threat to “WFP’s ability to support the nutritional needs of young children and their mothers.”

In the case of its shortfall in supervision of food distribution, however, the agency told Fox News that it had carried out some 2,000 visits during the period covered by the audit, and said that “WFP continues to operate on a “no access, no food” basis, meaning that it has agreed with government that access will be granted to WFP staff on request to our operations.”

WFP also declared that “the audit report commended the geographical coverage of WFP’s monitoring and the robust monitoring systems that WFP is able to use in the country.”

In fact, the report did declare that “the geographical coverage of the Country Office’s monitoring activities was commendable.” But the word “robust” does not turn up in the document. Instead, what is says is “the [U.N.] Country Office monitoring staff and Senior Government County officials had established effective and efficient working relationships and County officials came to meetings with the Country Office monitoring missions with most of the required supporting documentation.”

In response to questions from Fox News about the audit report’s assertion that inspection visits had been curtailed, a WFP spokesman laid the blame for the government-imposed inspection gap, “among other things,” on “heavy rains and tropical storms that caused road damage.” But the reply carefully did not specify any additional reasons for the inspection shut-downs, while implying that such additional reasons existed.

Moreover, the Inspector General’s report indicated that it didn’t necessarily buy the explanation that WFP gave to Fox News, essentially noting that the agency showed no evidence of back-checking the regime’s excuses. As the report puts it: “In the absence of documented analyses and evaluations by the Country Office of the Governments’ reasons for the denial of access to WFP staff of WFP project sites, the Country Office could not demonstrate that its agreement with the Government on access is fully complied with.”

On the matter of misleading reports about the number of inspection tours that it actually took, WFP admitted in response to Fox News questions that the agency included had viewed “field visits by the Country Director, Deputy Country Director and Heads of Units accompanying donors”—in short, VIP fly-byes-- as monitoring missions. The agency did not, however, answer questions about the number of field visits wrongly labelled, and the proportion of the p.r. expeditions wrongfully added to the monitoring total.

In similar fashion, WFP only tacitly acknowledged the importance of the role of a state-run firm referenced in the Inspector General’s report that is known as the Government Tally Company. Its job, according to WFP, is to “check aid commodities that arrive (in container and bulk vessels), to certify the quantity and quality of the commodities received and submit reports to WFP.”

But according to the Inspector General, the lack of a formal contract with the regime firm, as well as unspecified evidence from the company’s tally sheets, “gives rise to the risk that the tally company’s invoices may not be accurately stated, and the Country Office may be paying more than is justified by the work performed.”

The report does not , however, take the logical next step of noting that potentially falsified work invoices might also mean potentially falsified reports to WFP on the actual amount of aid that had been received—a gaping hole in the accounting chain that supposedly prevents diversion.

WFP told Fox News that “In line with the audit recommendation WFP plans to formalize this arrangement with a contractual agreement.”

WFP’s spokesman did not reveal when that would happen.

George Russell is editor-at-large of Fox News and can be found on Twitter @GeorgeRussell.

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