Aid agencies sign food agreement with North Korea

By agency reporter
1 Jul 2008

Five aid agencies today announced that they have signed an agreement with the Democratic People's Republic of Korea to deliver US government food assistance to North Koreans suffering from severe food shortages.

It comes as a food crisis looms and reports suggest one over a third of children there are malnourished.

The partnership will distribute 100,000 metric tons of food to more than a half-million needy people over a twelve-month period.

Mercy Corps is leading the program, with World Vision as co-lead, pending final agreement. Partner agencies are Samaritan's Purse, Global Resource Services and Christian Friends of Korea.

Daily rations will be provided for approximately 550,000 vulnerable people -- mostly children, the elderly and pregnant and nursing women -- in two North Korean provinces. The program, funded by the US Agency for International Development's (USAID) office of Food for Peace, is the first US food assistance program for North Korea since 2000.

"This is a breakthrough program: the first US bilateral food assistance to North Korea in eight years. As a needs-based program, it has enabled us to have unprecedented monitoring provisions," explained Nancy Lindborg, president of Mercy Corps.

"This will help many vulnerable people survive amidst North Korea's chronic food shortages," said George Ward, senior vice president of international programs for World Vision in the US. "The food needs in North Korea right now are extreme and threaten to get worse without immediate intervention. This assistance comes at a critical time."

The resumption of food assistance to North Korea follows recent United Nations reports of a looming food crisis there. The World Food Programme (WFP) and UNICEF reported in their latest large-scale survey that 37 percent of young children are chronically malnourished, and one-third of mothers are malnourished and anemic.

The situation has become dire in the past several months as floods devastated harvests, China erected barriers to food exports, and global food prices skyrocketed. A shortage of 1.66 million metric tons of food is projected by the WFP, which also reports a doubling of prices for staples such as rice and maize. The WFP will distribute another 400,000 metric tons of food aid in this new USAID-funded program.

The partner organizations will begin addressing these challenges immediately. "Each of the partner agencies has a decade or more of solid experience successfully working inside North Korea," said Ken Isaacs, vice president of programs and government relations at Samaritan's Purse. "We are poised and ready to deliver food to those who most need it."

This new food assistance program includes clear provisions for monitoring distributions and conducting ongoing needs assessments. According to the program agreement 16 team members from the partner organizations will be based for the duration of the program in Chagang and North Pyongan Provinces, as well as in the capital of Pyongyang. They will be able to monitor the program and randomly visit all points of distribution.

"We are thrilled to be working with a group of such effective and caring partner organizations," said Jon Brause, director of USAID's office of policy, programs and management. "We are confident that, with the monitoring provisions we have in place, this assistance will help many people get the food they need to lead healthy lives."

A team of nine experts from the partner organizations just returned from nearly three weeks of conducting an assessment in North Korea. The team's extensive interviews, observations and data review confirmed food shortages and acute needs. Malnourishment was prevalent, rations have been severely reduced in recent months, and in some places, food stocks are just weeks away from completely running out.

"I have visited North Korea many times through the years, and I have observed an extreme deterioration of the food situation in the past year. The need has never been greater," commented Heidi Linton, executive director of Christian Friends of Korea.

"This program is critical and urgent, particularly for children and elderly, who too often are the victims of malnutrition, stunted growth and slowed development," explained Rob Springs, CEO and President of Global Resource Services.

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