Wealthier countries need to put aside politics to help millions of North Koreans going hungry from food shortages, the UN’s top relief official said, renewing an appeal for assistance that has largely gone unmet.
Speaking at the end of a five-day visit to North Korea, UN -Undersecretary-General Valerie Amos said on Friday that 6 million North Koreans, particularly children, mothers and pregnant women, need help. The figures, she said, are borne out by UN data and by what she learned from visits to farms, hospitals and orphanages, as well as from officials.
People’s diets, she said, consist of rice, corn, cabbage and little else, with no protein or nutrient rich foods.
While she acknowledged concerns about whether the authoritarian government diverts food aid or underfunds agriculture, Amos urged donor countries to put the needs of North Koreans ahead of other considerations.
“This is about helping the people who are most in need. It’s not about saying that this country has made a choice about spending its resources in one way rather than another. We don’t make those judgements in other countries, on humanitarian grounds. There’s no reason to begin to do it in North Korea,” Amos said before leaving Pyongyang.
Hers is the latest appeal to meet a UN request in April for US$218 million in emergency aid. Only a third has been met as key donors such as the US largely shun giving over North Korea’s provocative behavior and persisting questions about whether North Korea is withholding food from its public.
The US government approved US$900,000 in emergency flood aid in August, but has held back on approving food aid in part because Pyongyang is funding a nuclear program, reneging on nuclear disarmament pledges. Key US ally South Korea, which earlier in the past decade provided large amounts of food aid, stopped giving after conservative South Korean President Lee Myung-bak took office in 2008.
UN agencies and humanitarian groups continue to have trouble monitoring how their aid is distributed — issues Amos said she raised with North Korean officials. She said she also discussed the “chronic poverty and underdevelopment” she saw.
Still, she said, donors should not doubt the evident need for food aid.
“Donors need to trust the information that they’re being given. They need to trust what they’re being told about the situation here,” Amos said.
Amos will apply her findings to a revised need assessment that will be presented in two or three weeks.
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