By Andrew Quinn
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. aid groups have accused the Obama administration of playing politics with North Korean food aid, imperiling millions of hungry and vulnerable people in the isolated Communist state.
As South Korean President Lee Myung-bak continued his state visit to the United States on Friday a group of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) wants the Obama administration to explain what they call unconscionable delays in deciding whether to resume U.S. food assistance to North Korea.
"There has clearly been a political lens put over a humanitarian issue," said Jim White of the international relief organization Mercy Corps, which took the lead in prior U.S. aid efforts to North Korea.
"We are seeing large numbers of people in North Korea slip from chronic malnutrition to acute. There are needs now."
The United States says it is weighing North Korea's request for new food aid as Washington and its ally South Korea seek to maintain a firm line on Pyongyang's disputed nuclear program and sporadic bursts of belligerence against Seoul.
The State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) declined to answer inquiries about when the decision may be made or what factors may be at play.
They stress, however, that any decision will be based on humanitarian need in North Korea -- a secretive country which is largely closed to foreigners.
North Korea "must address our concerns about monitoring and outstanding issues related to North Korea's suspension of our previous food aid program before any decision can be considered," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said last week.
Rising global commodities prices coupled with summer floods and typhoons have compounded the emergency this year, and the United Nations estimated in March that more than 6 million North Koreans urgently need food help.
But North Korea's requests for aid help have gone mostly unanswered by a skeptical international community. The current World Food Program (WFP) appeal for the country is only about 30 percent funded.
The United States and South Korea, the two biggest donors to the North before sanctions, have suggested they will not resume aid until they are satisfied the government will not divert the assistance for its own ends as some critics of prior programs allege.
Aid workers with U.S. NGOs which helped implement a U.S. food aid program for North Korea in 2008-09 as well as deliver emergency U.S. flood help last month say these concerns are overblown and that they could get a credible food aid program up and running swiftly if given the green light.
"We've made significant improvements on the level of monitoring that we can do in communities to ensure that food got from the U.S. to individuals who need it," said Randall Spadoni of World Vision. He noted that official North Korean rations were cut earlier this year from 400 grams of wheat or potatoes per adult per day to just 200 grams, a fraction of what a healthy adult would require.
"They've been receiving that for about five months. They get no protein, very little vitamins. We don't know how people can cope with this, and we are very afraid of what we are going to see in the future if this goes on."
The NGOs say they have been able to operate with Korean-speaking staff on the ground, track aid deliveries and make spot checks as long as they give officials 24 hours notice -- reducing concerns of aid diversion.
"There is a learning that begins to happen, and they begin to understand and accept that a certain set of principles and paradigms can be put in place," said White of Mercy Corps.
MEASURING THE NEED
North Korea suffered a crippling famine in the 1990s that killed an estimated one million people, and has seen chronic food shortages due to mismanaged farm policy, a string of natural disasters and sanctions imposed on its nuclear and missile programs.
The United States has given North Korea about $800 million in food aid since 1996, but stopped in 2009 after Pyongyang suspended the program operated in conjunction with the U.N. World Food Program (WFP) in a row over monitoring.
After devastating floods, the United States in August agreed to provide North Korea with up to $900,000 in emergency relief supplies, which arrived early last month aboard a chartered jumbo jet at Pyongyang's airport.
Under bright spotlights -- all the more noticeable in energy-starved North Korea's nighttime gloom -- workers bustled to unload 83 tonnes of oral rehydration tablets, plastic tarpaulins, emergency medicine and community water filters which were then shipped to flood-hit areas in North and South Hwanghae and Kangwon provinces.
Matthew Ellingson of Samaritan's Purse, one of the U.S. NGOs involved in the delivery, said the six-person NGO team, which included three Korean speakers, was stunned by the devastation they saw on the ground.
The U.S. flood aid, like the discontinued 2008-09 U.S. food aid program, was negotiated through the Korea America Private Exchange Society (KAPES), an official North Korean organization charged with managing aid donations.
White, of Mercy Corps, said that while KAPES officials did shadow the aid delivery team, the U.S. groups were satisfied that monitoring and transparency standards were upheld.
"We are verifying that the people who are receiving the goods are in fact vulnerable. We require them to show us a list of vulnerable people and match those goods to the names ... and we can verify that the goods have arrived at pediatric hospitals and there are hungry kids," he said.
HUMANITARIAN VS POLITICAL
U.S. officials sent their own needs assessment team to North Korea in May, but five months later have yet to release the team's report.
Political observers say the food aid decision appears bound up in the larger question of whether to reengage with North Korea despite its reluctance to accede to international demands that it scrap its nuclear arms program.
"As a practical matter no decision has been reached on food aid because no decisions have been reached on broader policy considerations with respect to North Korea," said one congressional staffer familiar with the issue.
"The food aid question is enmeshed bureaucratically in the overall fabric of North Korea policy and they just can't cut it loose and make it an independent decision."
The NGO groups concede that the 2008-09 food program collapsed due to a dispute over monitoring by the World Food Program, tasked with handling the bulk of the 500,000 metric tonnes of food aid.
"The 2008/2009 operation was not well-funded and as a result our operating conditions were changed, meaning we could not use Korean speakers, had to give seven days' notice instead of 24 hours', and the geographical scope of the operation was cut," WFP spokesman Marcus Prior said.
WFP continues to operate in North Korea, with a smaller, largely nutrition-based program. The U.S. NGOs say they now have assurances that North Korea would agree to resuming bigger aid programs based on the original 2008 aid agreement which the United States accepted.
The proposed food aid would include a nutritional corn/soy blend and vegetable oils, which are not generally easy to resell, they say, and the North Koreans have also indicated they would consider new steps such as nutritional monitoring to ensure the food is reaching the needy, which could further tamp down fears of food diversions.
"All signs that we have gotten from the North Korean side is that they are willing to negotiate that if something is on the table," said White of Mercy Corps. "We are waiting for the U.S. government to engage."
(Additional reporting by Paul Eckert and Susan Cornwell; editing by Todd Eastham)
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