Relief aid to North Korea, where a third of children are chronically malnourished, should not be linked to political developments in the nuclear weapons dispute, the World Food Programme said on Wednesday.
With last year’s nuclear test deterring governments from any dealings with Pyongyang, and with South Korea deciding to give aid bilaterally, the North only received a quarter of the supplies it needed to fill its annual 1m tonne food shortfall.
As it tries to avoid another crisis in the country, which has little arable land and has historically run a food deficit, the United Nations agency is urging potential donors not to link aid to politics.
Tony Banbury, the WFP’s Asia director, said: “I hope donations will start up again because there is a real, genuine need in North Korea.”
“This should be entirely separate from the political discussion. This political situation has been dragging on and on for years but the people of North Korea can’t wait for political issues to be resolved. They need their food issues resolved now.”
In 2005, outside donors gave 1.2m tonnes, more than filling the 1m tonne shortfall, but they gave only 312,000 tonnes last year, leading to a “serious deterioration in the food situation”, Mr Banbury said after a six-day visit to the North.
“The question is whether 2007 is going to be a repeat of 2005, or whether it is going to be a repeat of 2006 and millions of North Koreans are going to go hungry.”
Food shortages have been alleviated since famine in the mid-1990s caused as many as 2m North Koreans to starve. The country remains, however, in a precarious situation with between a third and a half of its people facing a daily struggle to find enough food.
With this year’s budget only 18 per cent funded, the WFP is feeding only 3 per cent of the population, as opposed to the 33 per cent it helped in 2005.
The situation has been exacerbated by the South’s decision in 2005 to give food aid directly to North Korean authorities rather than through the WFP.
The step was criticised by aid agencies because of a decision by Pyongyang to evict international groups that insisted on checking on the delivery of food. Many international aid workers privately call this a “disgrace” and say it has led to hungry North Koreans being treated like pawns in a political game.
After last year’s missile tests, Seoul suspended rice and fertiliser shipments to the North as punishment, leading to a 75 per cent food shortfall. The South resumed food aid this month.
Neither the US, Japan nor the UK donated to the WFP in 2006. The largest donor was Russia, with $5m (£2.54m), followed by Switzerland with $2.5m and Australia with $1.2m. Cuba gave $1.7m of sugar.