With the fate of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il still a mystery, the United Nations Development Program is nonetheless pushing ahead with a "road map" plan to negotiate reopening the offices in North Korea that it abruptly closed 18 months ago.
The plan was presented to an extraordinary session of UNDP's 37-member executive board on Tuesday and adopted by consensus. According to UNDP sources, it sets no timetable for the reopening of UNDP's program, but outlines a process of negotiation toward that end.
UNDP is supposed to present a progress report at the next UNDP executive board meeting in January, 2009.
At the moment, however, a UNDP spokesman asserted that "there is no UNDP staff currently discussing anything in Pyongyang. Any decision to return to [North Korea] will be done with the explicit approval of the board."
UNDP's actions in North Korea ignited one of the fiercest controversies in the history of the U.N.'s $5 billion anti-poverty organization, after the U.S. charged that the organization had violated its own rules when it funneled million of dollars in hard currency to the Kim dictatorship, hired North Korean government personnel to fill sensitive UNDP jobs, and passed on sensitive "dual use" technology to North Korea while it was developing a nuclear bomb.
The U.S. charges, and more, were vindicated in a report by a hand-picked UNDP panel of ostensibly independent experts, who divulged their findings last June.
By that time, UNDP's executive board had suspended the development agency's North Korea program, after demanding that UNDP staffers fill the sensitive posts, only local currency be used to pay local costs, and programs be restricted to those on "sustainable human development," under direct UNDP supervision.
FOX News has learned from sources familiar with the executive board discussions that the so-called "road map" for UNDP's return includes five stages, the first being the executive board discussion of the issue.
The remaining steps include:
• "preliminary" discussions with the North Korean government, based on recommendations by the investigating panel that include strengthened UNDP staff supervision of projects, much tightened financial controls, and independent auditing of programs;
• sending a negotiating team to Pyongyang;
• depending on the outcome of talks, new proposals for a UNDP program in North Korea; and finally
• staff recruitment and office reopening.
Restoring the flow of aid to North Korea has recently become an urgent priority both for the U.N. and for the U.S. State Department, which is still engaged in talks to limit North Korea's nuclear program.
(Those talks are apparently not proceeding all that well. This week, North Korea's regime — leadership unknown, since Kim apparently suffered a massive stroke on September 14 — formally requested that the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency remove its seals from a nuclear reactor at Yongbyan, opening the door to reprocessing of nuclear fuel there.)
So far, the U.N.'s World Food Program is committed to providing $500 million worth of emergency food aid to North Korea, ostensibly for flood and famine relief. Whether all that aid actually reaches North Korea's desperately hungry people is difficult to determine.
The extent of UNDP's future development aid to North Korea will doubtless now depend on the talks with the regime that the UNDP executive board has now authorized. And that, in turn, may depend on who is running the regime.
George Russell is executive editor of FOX News.