The U.N.'s food agency cannot feed millions of hungry women and children in impoverished North Korea because international donations have dried up and the communist regime has restricted its operations, an official said Wednesday.
The World Food Program has received only 15 percent of the $504 million it needs to feed 6.2 million vulnerable North Koreans as the food situation worsens during a lean growing season before the November harvest, according to Torben Due, the WFP's representative for North Korea.
Due would not give a reason for the funding shortfall but said he understood that donors may be responding to the political situation in North Korea.
The WFP has received no contributions after North Korea carried out a nuclear test in May, he said. That test drew international condemnation and garnered U.N. sanctions.
The North Korean government has also told the agency to scale back its operations, Due said, and to get rid of its Korean-speaking staff, which reduced the number of workers to 16 last month from the 59 agreed upon last year.
The agency launched its humanitarian food program in October 2008, but the lack of funds meant it was reaching only 1.7 million people, down from 4 million last September, he said.
"It is amongst the lowest (number) we've ever had in the DPRK," Due told a news conference in Beijing, using the official name for North Korea, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
In the mid-1990s the agency fed up to 7 million people, he said. The U.N. estimates that overall 8.7 million people need food in North Korea.
He said they were not given a reason by the North Korean government for the staff cut, but said he suspected it had to do with the fact the WFP is the only U.N. agency in Pyongyang to have Korean-speaking staff.
And starting from last month the agency has also been allowed to operate in only 57 counties in the country, rather than the previous 131 counties.
Still, the agency has noticed an increased number of children referred to hospitals in the country for malnutrition, Due said, but he did not have specific figures.
"For children it is critical, and it means they do not have the nutrition required for growth," he said.
Communist North Korea has relied on foreign assistance to feed its 23 million people since the mid-1990s when its economy was hit by natural disasters coupled with the loss of the regime's Soviet benefactor.
Due said according to the WFP's information, there have been no changes to China's food and oil assistance to North Korea. China is Pyongyang's closest ally and largest source of fuel and food aid.