Stefania Bianchi

The World Food Programme is facing a funding crisis in North Korea, warns John Aylieff, the agency’s Brussels representative. “We need a further 150 million dollars to solve the food crisis there,” Aylieff told media representatives Friday. In January, the WFP, the food aid arm of the UN, appealed to donors for 171 million dollars to fund the food shortage in North Korea, “but we have so far only received 21 million,” Aylieff said. The WFP says North Korea has been “producing more food in recent years with evidence of nutritional improvements” but says “there is still not enough to feed its 23 million population.” According to a WFP survey conducted in October 2002, 42 per cent of young children in North Korea are chronically malnourished, while nine per cent are “acutely malnourished” and 21 per cent “underweight”. But Aylieff says the crisis is going unnoticed.

The funding crisis was heightened when a train crash in Ryongchon last week claimed 161 lives. About 1,300 people were injured and 1,850 homes destroyed. WFP was one of the first aid agencies to deliver humanitarian assistance to hospital victims following the disaster. It sent a seven metric tonne consignment of high-energy biscuits, wheat and vegetable oil. But the food agency says much more is needed.

In spite of severe funding shortages, the WFP is pledging to feed thousands of others left injured or homeless “for as long as necessary.” Before the emergency, the agency had aimed to mobilise 484,000 tonnes of food aid for 6.5 million people this year, including 3.8 million core beneficiaries. The agency is currently unable to provide cereals to 600,000 of these core beneficiaries — a figure set to rise to one million in May. Relief and rehabilitation requirements are set to rise in the coming weeks, and WFP aims to supply at least 1,000 tonnes of food aid (worth about a million dollars) to victims over the next 30 days and beyond, putting further pressure on the agency’s already under funded operations in the country.

For decades North Korea has been one of the world’s most secretive societies, and is one of the few remaining countries still under communist rule. Aylieff says the crisis is due to a combination of “donor fatigue” and “dissatisfaction with the access problem” in the country. “However, you should ask the donors themselves about this,” he said. Aid agencies have estimated that up to two million people have died since the mid-1990s as a result of acute food shortages caused by natural disasters and economic mismanagement. But WFP spokesperson Christiane Berthiaume says the situation is improving and that food aid is gradually getting through. “We have to push really hard, but the door is opening,” she said. “In recent years the WFP has achieved major breakthroughs and we can now choose the places where we want to monitor the delivery of food aid to make sure that it gets through to those most in need.” Last year the EU gave some 20 million dollars in aid through NGOs to fund water, sanitation and nutrition projects in North Korea. In December, the

Humanitarian Aid Office of the European Commission (ECHO) provided an additional 5.9 million dollars to meet urgent nutritional needs of highly vulnerable groups. — IPS