WFP chief urges North Korea to grant more access

Seoul (AFP) –


North Korea needs to allow more access and monitoring for international aid, the head of the UN's World Food Programme said Tuesday following a four-day visit to the country.

The WFP is one of the few aid agencies operating in the isolated country, which suffered a famine that killed hundreds of thousands of people -- estimates range into the millions -- in the mid-1990s.

But raising money for humanitarian aid in North Korea has become more challenging as Pyongyang has poured resources into its nuclear and missile programmes rather than feeding its people, and been hit with multiple rounds of UN sanctions as a result.

David Beasley, the WFP chief, said Pyongyang was granting wider access than ever before, with his organisation able to carry out 1,800 site visits last year, but it needed to allow more.

"We still need greater access, more information, more data," he told a press conference in Seoul.

"I said very clearly... you have people around the world that are concerned that the food and the money won't go to its intended consequences."

Around the world, the number of "severely hungry" people had spiked from 80 million to 124 million in the last three years, he said, while the WFP was two to three billion dollars short of its funding goals.

Without access, he said, "the chances of receiving funds necessary, or food necessary, to move the ball forward in food security is going to be a difficult game".

The UN sought $114 million in aid from donors last year for North Korea but received only $31 million, and so was able to help only 15 percent of those it targeted for food assistance.

But the WFP chief said he felt "a tremendous sense of optimism" in his meetings with North Korean officials in the hopes of "turning a new chapter in history".

Dialogue brokered by Seoul has seen US-North Korea relations go from trading personal insults and threats of war last year to a summit between Kim and President Donald Trump due in Singapore on June 12.

Experts say that North Korea needs to produce around 6.5 to 6.7 million tonnes of food to feed its population, but usually grows around one million tonnes less than that, leading to chronic shortfalls.

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization's 2017 report on global food security and nutrition, 10.3 million North Koreans are now considered to be undernourished -- around 41 percent of the population.

Sanctions imposed on Pyongyang over its weapons ambitions "slows down the time to get items such as food in because some companies obviously are very concerned about being blacklisted", Beasley said.