The World Food Programme will next week begin distributing food aid to 1.9m of the ?most needy? North Koreans, six months after Kim Jong-il?s regime forced the United Nations agency to stop humanitarian assistance in one of the world?s poorest countries.
Although schoolchildren will receive vitamin-enriched biscuits and pregnant women, infants and new mothers will get high-nutrition porridge, the scope of the revised $102m programme will be sharply reduced from the previous one which fed 6.5m-plus North Koreans until the end of last year.
?In the end, we had to make some compromises,? said Anthony Banbury, the agency?s Asia director. ?We believe there?s still a requirement for a larger programme [but] the alternative was to shut down operations, walk away and leave 1.9m people behind, which was a worse alternative,? he said.
With improving harvests and large-scale, unconditional food aid from South Korea and China, the North Korean regime ordered international aid agencies involved in humanitarian work to leave the country by December last year, saying it wanted only developmental assistance.
Pyongyang allowed aid agencies into North Korea following a devastating famine in the mid-90s, which may have killed as much as 10 per cent of the 23m-strong population, but it has never been comfortable with having foreigners moving around the tightly controlled country.
After months of negotiations, the WFP signed a new agreement with North Korean officials in Pyongyang on Wednesday under which it will supply food to vulnerable groups and resume its ?food for work? programme for needy families.
The WFP will start distributing the 12,000 tonnes of leftover stock still in North Korea next week, but it would take months to implement fully the programme and further international donations were needed, Mr Banbury said.
However, the agency will be permitted to distribute only 75,000 tonnes of grain a year ? compared with than 500,000 tonnes previously ? and can operate in only four rather than seven provinces. Furthermore, it had to cut its international staff from more than 40 to 10.
North Korea says it does not want to foster a ?culture of dependency? after a decade of foreign aid, but analysts say the regime is trying to limit the amount of contact North Koreans have with the outside world.
The decision to expel humanitarian workers came shortly after South Korea gave 500,000 tonnes of rice to the North, the distribution of which is largely unmonitored.
At inter-Korean talks last month, the North asked Southern delegates to provide an additional 500,000 tonnes of rice and 300,000 tonnes of fertiliser this year. Mr Banbury said this suggested North Korea was still facing a food shortage.
Human Rights Watch last week said the curbs on aid and the prohibition of private grain sales could lead to renewed hunger in North Korea.
?The government is apparently trying to turn back the clock to regain some of the control lost when it allowed people greater freedom to move around and buy grain,? said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. ?The government should reverse its new policies, which make it harder for hungry people to find the food they need to survive and stay healthy.?