Suspicious N Koreans block UN food aid

Donor row: Divisions in Pyongyang jeopardise help for flood victims
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Ten months after devastating floods forced it to make an unprecedented appeal for international aid, the secretive government of North Korea is behaving with characteristic ambivalence towards the outside world.

In Tokyo this week, a delegation led by one of the country's leading economic reformers embarked on what five years ago would have been inconceivable: an international tour aimed at attracting foreign investment to one of the most closed and xenophobic countries in the world. At the same time, United Nations officials are facing bureaucratic obstacles in supervising the distribution of aid to flood-stricken areas.

Particularly frustrated is the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) which established an office last November in the capital, Pyongyang. In May, Trevor Page, the WFP's country director for North Korea, left Pyongyang after upsetting hardline elements in the military with his outspoken statements about the seriousness of the food shortage. Last month his successor was evacuated to Hong Kong with a stomach complaint; his stand-in was forced to leave the country after the North Korean authorities refused to renew his visa.

The WFP plays a crucial role in North Korea and constantly has to reconcile the defensiveness of the Pyongyang government with the suspicions of the outside world. It is responsible for much of the $43.6m (pounds 28.5m) in aid being sought from international donors, and it also supervises the shipment and distribution of food aid. The UN Development Programme will shortly announce a fresh appeal for $37m of rehabilitation and reconstruction aid, $1m of which has already been secured from UN central funds.

But international donors, particularly South Korea, have often expressed the suspicion that Pyongyang may divert humanitarian aid to its million- strong army, or sell it in exchange for hard currency. UN officials insist this is not happening but say that Pyongyang's obstructiveness is jeopardising the flow of aid.

"The donor countries trust the UN system and we are the guarantor that aid is getting to the people it's intended to help," said Faruq Achikzad, the UN's resident co-ordinator in Pyongyang. "We have told the government that if they don't allow the monitoring then everything else collapses."

The problem appears to reflect internal divisions between the military and more practical reform-minded elements in the foreign and economic ministries.

In February, aid agencies were told to cancel a planned appeal because of resistance within the military, which objected to the way the country was being portrayed as a victim.

The latest trouble centred on an Indian official, VK Jain, who took over the WFP operation after the acting head became ill. Mr Jain was forced to leave the country after he was refused the necessary visa. "We got no explanation, and they didn't even reply to my letters," said Mr Achikzad. "It might have been his nationality, it might have been that he just asked too many questions."