North Korea's food crisis has eased -- but not enough for the UN and other aid groups to end their humanitarian work in the country as Pyongyang has requested, the UN humanitarian chief warned.
North Korea announced on Thursday that it wanted all emergency humanitarian assistance from international organizations to stop by the end of the year, partly because of what it called political interference from the US.
Undersecretary-General Jan Egeland, the UN humanitarian affairs coordinator, told reporters on Friday that aid groups were trying to figure out if they could reclassify some of their work as development assistance, something North Korea will still allow.
"We want to end all humanitarian programs all over the world because we want, as humanitarians, to see development and ourselves out of work," Egeland said. "But that time has not come yet in our view in North Korea."
Other UN agencies are also in talks with North Korea on how to overcome their differences over emergency food, UN officials said on Friday.
"This is a very sensitive issue," said Elisabeth Byrs, spokeswoman for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. "There are discussions with the North Korean government at the moment ... in order to continue the humanitarian programs. The improvement in malnutrition and elsewhere are primarily due to effective humanitarian assistance," she said.
The UN World Food Program said it is negotiating with the North Korean government to find ways to change its food aid into development programs. But the Rome-based organization stressed that the North Korean government had not asked it to leave the country.
"We have not been asked to terminate our assistance ... the government wants us to stay in place and the WFP wants to stay," spokeswoman Christiane Berthiaume said.
The nation of 22 million has received emergency food from the UN and other international groups since natural disasters and mismanagement caused its economy to collapse in the mid-1990s. Famine has killed an estimated 2 million people. This year, the WFP is providing food assistance to about 6.5 million North Koreans -- mainly children, pregnant and nursing women, elderly or otherwise vulnerable people.
Egeland said that North Korea had seen improvement since the late 1990s, when many humanitarian groups started working there. Acute malnutrition dropped from 16 percent to seven percent, while chronic malnutrition fell to 37 percent from 62 percent, he said. He said North Korea had approached the UN at the start of September about cutting back its programs and officials had been in "intensive dialogue" about how to proceed.
Berthiaume said 70 percent of WFP's aid already goes to development projects such as food-for-work programs or making enriched food.