WASHINGTON—U.S. food aid to North Korea would resume “tomorrow” if Pyongyang allows it and agrees to Washington’s terms, according to a senior U.S. official.
“We would start it up tomorrow if the terms could be put back into play,” John Brause, deputy administrator at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), told a briefing at the Korea Economic Institute here.
“We continue to be very optimistic, and we hope the [North Korean] decision to ask the NGOs to leave and the
World Food Program to scale back is more tied up in broader issues, more strategic issues, than it is in their real fear of the humanitarian program,” he said.
Amid mounting tensions over North Korea's nuclear program and planned missile launch in April, Pyongyang—one of the world’s most reclusive, secretive regimes—last week said it wouldn’t accept any more U.S. assistance, the State Department said.
...we’re negotiating with them."
Paul Majarowitz, Mercy Corps
Brause cited a “higher level of impediments” by the North Koreans to monitoring of food distribution, as well as Pyongyang’s cancellation of a country-wide nutrition survey that had been scheduled for October 2008 and refusal to allow more Korean-speaking aid workers into the country.
“The fact that they canceled the survey was a big problem because this program is based on need, and the way that you demonstrate that there is, in fact, a humanitarian need in the country is to do an assessment,” Brause said.
North Korea has suffered severe food shortages for more than a decade, but the country has frequently faced accusations that international food aid has been siphoned away from the hungriest North Koreans and directed toward soldiers and cadres.
A State Department spokesman last week said U.S. officials were “very concerned” about North Korea’s decision to stop food aid shipments, adding, “This is food assistance that the North Koreans need.”
U.S. aid officials settled the terms of the agreement last May to provide a total of 500,000 metric tons of food to North Korea, where up to 8.7 million people—more than one-third of the population—are believed to be in need of food aid.
Mercy Corps leaving
Paul Majarowitz, director of Mercy Corps NGO Food Assistance Program in North Korea, a private aid group, said North Korea had indicated that the 2008 protocol was “no longer in effect.”
Mercy Corps is complying with North Korea’s expulsion order for its staff and plans to remove its personnel and equipment from the country by March 31, Majarowitz said.
“On March 13, we were given a letter by the North Korean government that asked us to close our field offices by March 20, and our main office by March 31, and have all of our staff and equipment out of the country by March 31,” Majarowitz said.
“We are complying with that request and at the same time we’re negotiating with them—trying to see if there is an avenue to restart or to resume the program,” he said.
Under the 2008 agreement, Mercy Corps operates an office in the North Korean capital and two field offices with a total of 16 international staff.
North Korea’s decision to stop U.S. aid comes amid tensions over the country’s nuclear program and an expected missile launch next month.
Long-running six-party talks among the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia, and the United States on the North's nuclear programs have also stalled.
Original reporting in English by Joshua Lipes. Additional reporting from Reuters. Written for the Web in English by Joshua Lipes. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.