WASHINGTON – The United States cannot continue food aid for thousands of hungry North Koreans until Pyongyang allows international relief workers to monitor its distribution, the Bush administration said Thursday.
In a rebuke to North Korea for its refusal of World Food Program monitoring, State Department spokesman Adam Ereli called the nation's leaders insensitive to what he described as hundreds of thousands of malnourished and starving people.
The U.S. government is one of the biggest donors to the World Food Program, which plans to shut down its operations in North Korea by the end of this year.
"This is, unfortunately, not inconsistent with past North Korean practice, which is to ignore the needs of its people, let them starve for inexplicable reasons," Ereli told reporters.
"Until and unless we can be sure that the food we give is really going to the people who need it, then we can't continue to provide aid. And with North Korea calling for all foreign assistance to end, then obviously those criteria can't be met," he added.
North Korea has relied on foreign aid to feed its 23 million people since disclosing in the mid-1990s that its state-run farms had collapsed after the loss of Soviet aid and decades of mismanagement. Famine is believed to have killed 2 million people.
World Food Program officials estimate the organization has spent about $1.7 billion over the past decade on aid to North Korea. It scaled back aid earlier this month to most of the 6.4 million people it was feeding after failing to agree with North Korea on continuing food assistance programs.
The United States and other foreign donors want the program to monitor food distribution to ensure that it isn't diverted to the North Korean military or to reward supporters of the ruling party.
"And it's unfortunate because there's a need that the World Food Program seeks to address and that we support," Ereli said. "But we can't do that without North Korean cooperation. If there's not North Korean cooperation, there's not much we can do."
The North Korean government has said the nation no longer needs emergency humanitarian assistance, and believes it can feed its people with its own harvests and help from China and South Korea.
World Food Program officials, however, say the transition is too short and could leave many people hungry.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Il has ordered all aid agencies that receive European Union money — including every private charity operating in the country — to leave by early next year in response to criticism of his country's human rights record.