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AP Exclusive: Foreign food aid drying up in NKorea

Friday - 4/25/2014, 12:12pm  ET

In this March 8, 2013 photo, North Koreans gather in a park in Pyongyang to dance to popular local music played on a speaker. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)

Associated Press

PYONGYANG, North Korea (AP) -- A funding crunch for aid to North Korea has become so severe 500,000 rural schoolchildren are as of this month no longer receiving assistance and aid to millions more could soon dry up, according to a report obtained by The Associated Press. The report underscores the flight of international donors to countries with less political baggage and more willingness to let aid workers do their jobs.

Just a short walk from one of the World Food Programme's two still-functioning food factories in the heart of Pyongyang, children snack on ice cream and sweets at street-side stalls. Well-heeled guests in luxury hotels sip on cappuccinos while white-hatted chefs back in the kitchen whip up pizzas smothered in cheese and sausage. This is the face North Korea prefers the world see. If there is hunger here, it is anything but obvious.

But while the North has come a long way since the famine and economic breakdowns believed to have killed hundreds of thousands in the mid-1990s, it continues to suffer widespread food shortages made worse by frequent natural disasters, limited economic growth and the lack of seeds, fertilizers and fuel, according to an internal, preliminary version of the report being prepared by WFP for current or prospective donors.

The report, noting statistics that every third North Korean child is stunted and every fifth child is underweight, said it is "very concerned" about the long-term physical and intellectual development of malnourished children. North Korean officials were not available to immediately comment on the contents of the report.

The report also highlighted concern with WFP's own funding crisis.

Last year, WFP drew up a $200 million, two-year program targeting 2.4 million children and pregnant or nursing mothers. Because of low funding, that was scaled back to 1.63 million children and mothers, and even that appears to be too ambitious.

To meet its targets, WFP needs about $8 million a month. But with only $3 million a month available, it now has only enough resources to produce key food assistance until June.

Five of seven factories supplying high-nutrient biscuits -- the ones that previously went to the 500,000 schoolchildren -- were closed in March.

"It's like a drop of water on a hot stone," Dierk Stegen, WFP representative in Pyongyang, told The Associated Press. "We are planning from month to month."

Although Stegen said he is optimistic new pledges will be made, the coming months will be crucial.

May in North Korea marks the beginning of what aid organizations call the lean season. It lasts until October.

About 16 million North Koreans rely on state-provided rations of cereals. According to the WFP report, North Koreans have been getting larger rations of rice, potatoes and corn over the past two years. In March, the amount provided under the North's Public Distribution System was 410 grams per day, per person. North Korea hopes to increase that to 573 grams.

That's not much. The average American eats about 2,000 grams of food each day.

The bigger problem, however, isn't how much North Koreans eat, but what. According to the WFP report, the average North Korean diet is alarmingly low on fats, proteins, vegetables and fruits.

To cope, particularly in the lean season, people eat fewer meals, rely on the help of relatives with access to produce in rural areas, gather wild edible plants or buy whatever they can find and afford in local markets, a practice that is frowned upon but grudgingly accepted by the government.

For many, that still isn't enough.

Stunting from chronic malnutrition is as high as 40 percent in some areas, according to the WFP.

Even so, broad international sanctions now in place on the North make aid efforts dauntingly complex and criticism of the country's human rights record -- including a scathing report issued recently by the United Nations -- have made donors less willing to chip in.

"Basically all aid agencies are struggling to find funding for the DPRK program, WFP included," said Katharina Zellweger, a visiting fellow at Stanford's Center for International Security and Cooperation. For many years she was in charge of the Swiss aid program in North Korea, formally called the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

"We know that feeding babies during their first 1,000 days is crucial, as this is the most important period for the child to develop," Zellweger said. "So stopping this vital support presents a grim picture with long-term implications."

Sixty percent of WFP donations come from governments, but since 2008, amid heightening tensions over the North's nuclear and missile programs, aid from the U.S., South Korea and Japan -- all major contributors to WFP -- has evaporated. Washington agreed to 240,000 tons of direct food aid for North Korea in February last year, but that fell through when the North launched a rocket two months later.

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