Thursday, March 4, 2010

Lack of donors hits N.Korea food relief efforts

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Efforts to feed starving North Koreans are being hit by dwindling donations, the World Food Programme said on Thursday, as defectors reported a deadly clash between troops and workers trying to loot a food train.

A North Korean bags wheat sent from the United States at Nampo in 2001.

Months of shortfalls in donations mean the WFP can carry out only 15 percent of its planned food aid operation, Lena Savelli, a spokeswoman for the UN body, said in an online report.

She said the agency had so far received contributions of 22.7 million dollars, just 4.5 percent of the 504 million dollars needed for its emergency operations in North Korea this year.

Two million people -- only one third of the 6.2 million originally targeted -- were receiving food aid, she said, and even they were receiving only incomplete rations of fortified foods.

Savelli expressed concern at the "very negative impact" on the people.

"The country is soon to enter the critical 'lean season' when food stocks from last year's harvest run low. In certain parts of North Korea, particularly in the northeast, high levels of malnutrition are anticipated."

Donations for the North's people have dwindled amid international irritation over the regime's missile and nuclear programmes. The North has also rejected some aid due to political tensions.

Lynn Pascoe, a UN undersecretary general, visited some of the world body's humanitarian projects in the North last month.

The initiatives were about one-quarter of what they should be amid "donor fatigue", he said at the time.

The communist North suffered famine in the 1990s which killed hundreds of thousands. It has relied on international aid since then to help feed its 24 million people.

NK Intellectuals Solidarity, a Seoul-based North Korean defector group, said Thursday that about 30 hungry railway workers clashed with police and troops after trying to loot a food train.

It said worker Cho Sung-Koo was shot dead by armed guards before troops moved in to restore order.

The unrest occurred on February 16, the North's biggest public holiday marking leader Kim Jong-Il's birthday, at Komusan station in Puryong county in North Hamkyong province, the group said.

"The railway workers turned extremely violent after one of them was shot dead at the scene, wielding hoes and pouncing on the guards," group spokesman Lee Se-Yeul told AFP, citing contacts in the North.

"Police had to move in to calm down the unrest, which was brought under control only after military troops were brought in."

He said all those involved, including a guard responsible for the killing, were arrested and may face harsh punishment.

The North's Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea, a state body, insisted Thursday that there was no "food robbery" on February 16.

"No train loaded with food had ever passed through the said area the day it claimed the 'incident' took place and before and after that day. Moreover, there occurred no such incident as 'food robbery'," it said in a statement published by state media.

The persistent food crisis has worsened since a bungled currency revaluation last November 30, reports say.

The move was intended to rein in a nascent free-market economy, but analysts said it disrupted the distribution system, intensifying food shortages and fuelling inflation.

The Daily NK online newspaper said the price of rice in the border city of Sinuiju had soared from 25 won per kilogram in late December to 1,000 won on Wednesday -- four times the state-set official price.

South Korean officials and aid groups say already severe food shortages are expected to worsen this year after a poor grain harvest in 2009.

A state-run research institute says the North is expected to face a grain shortfall of 1.29 million tons this year, equivalent to almost four months' food supply.

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