North Korea's army hardliners veto UN relief aid

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Tokyo - Five months after an unprecedented appeal for humanitarian aid, hardliners in North Korea's powerful military have vetoed a United Nations initiative to raise further relief for the victims of last summer's devastating floods, writes Richard Lloyd Parry.

According to estimates by the UN and the International Red Cross, as many as 2.5 million people are facing starvation after rain washed away houses and fields, and severely damaged an already feeble rice harvest. Pyongyang's Stalinist government, which had for 40 years rebuffed foreign aid, under the slogan juche, or self-reliance, invited investigators from the UN's Department of Humanitarian Affairs.

Based on their report, an appeal was launched last September for $15m (pounds 10m) but only $7m has materialised, including $2m promised by the United States. South Korea has expressed doubts about the scale of the food shortages and claimed that the military has large supplies of its own.

Last Friday, the heads of foreign relief agencies based in Pyongyang were called in by the deputy Foreign Minister, Choi Su Hon, and asked to abandon a new appeal, based on a more detailed analysis, and to leave the country as soon as their work is completed.

According to officials present at the meeting, which included the UN World Food Programme, the International Red Cross, and Medecins Sans Frontieres, elements in the government feel humiliated by the poor response, and annoyed at the way in which the crisis has been relayed through the foreign media.

"Journalists sometimes exaggerate how bad things are here, and some of our people here exaggerate to the journalists, to encourage donors to come up with the money," the Independent was told by a foreign official in Pyongyang. "This has upset the hardliners."

Mr Choi admitted that the change in policy has been guided by the military, which has prevailed over more moderate civilian elements in the Foreign Ministry. The influence of Pyongyang's million-strong armed forces has, of late, become a subject of nervous speculation by Korea-watchers.