September 27, 2005

N.Korea plan to halt aid a bad idea: US agency

By Paul Eckert, Asia Correspondent

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - North Korea's demand that outside
aid agencies end humanitarian relief efforts there by the end
of this year is a bad idea and could lead to more refugees, the
top U.S. aid official said on Monday.

"They are going to shut down the World Food Program efforts
at the end of this year, which we think is a mistake," Andrew
Natsios, head of the U.S. Agency for International Development
(USAID), told a symposium on North Korea food and human rights

"We believe that the humanitarian needs in North Korea
remain significant," said Natsios. He said a famine that he
estimated killed 2.5 million North Koreans peaked in 1998, but
there is still widespread hunger, especially among children.

The WFP, whose single biggest donor is the United States,
has provided food aid to North Korea since 1995. North Korea
told the United Nations this month that it wanted to end all
humanitarian aid -- a term that includes food, medical supplies
and other relief -- by the end of 2005.

"If the World Food Program leaves, we're leaving," Natsios
said, adding that all U.S. aid goes through the WFP.

U.N. Emergency Relief Coordinator Jan Egeland said last
week that with 7 percent of North Korea's 22.5 million people
still starving and 37 percent chronically malnourished, ending
relief programs this year was "too soon and too abrupt."


North Korea's decision is not well understood. Pyongyang
officials have said food production has improved and accused
the United States of politicizing relief by linking aid to
human rights. Washington strongly denies that allegation.

Many analysts say secretive North Korea wants to halt
monitoring, required by agencies to ensure that aid reaches
targeted recipients and is not siphoned off by officials.

A recent study the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North
Korea suggested that as much as 30 percent of food aid was
diverted away from intended beneficiaries. Pyongyang abused aid
while cutting back on food imports and using funds elsewhere,
including on military spending, the report said.

Aid experts have warned that international efforts to
scrutinize aid distribution was made more difficult by largely
unconditional shipments of aid to North Korea by China and
South Korea, neighbors which seek to staunch refugee flows.

Natsios said direct aid from China and South Korea, which
North Korea prefers because it comes with little or no
monitoring, could increase refugee flows as more vulnerable
North Koreans are denied aid.

"There are consequences for not doing the monitoring, even
for countries that want stability," Natsios said. He said
research had shown that refugees flows often increase when aid
is diverted.

"Many of the donors should realize that when they give
large amounts of food bilaterally to North Korea without the
controls in place, the risk of increase of those population
flows increases dramatically," he said.