N. Korea aims to cut presence of foreign aid agencies

U.N. is told it wants to end food, fund-raising program

September 30, 2004|By Barbara Demick | Barbara Demick,LOS ANGELES TIMES

SEOUL, South Korea - In a disturbing sign that North Korea is further closing its doors to the outside world, the reclusive regime is trying to reduce the presence of foreign aid agencies in the country, diplomats and aid officials said.

Although not rejecting humanitarian aid entirely, the North Korean government has told the United Nations that it wants to discontinue an annual fund-raising appeal that started in 1995 at the height of a famine that killed an estimated 2 million people. Officials also want to close some smaller aid agencies that they view as an intrusive presence.

North Korea appeared to be rolling back what were seen as encouraging moves this year to open up the country.

Among other signs of retrenchment, the North recently said it was pulling out of six-party negotiations on its nuclear program. It has intensified its rhetoric about the program, as evidenced by Vice Foreign Minister Choe Su Hon's statement Monday at the U.N. General Assembly that plutonium from 8,000 fuel rods had been converted for use in weapons.

Dialogue also has been suspended between South Korea and Pyongyang, the North's capital.

Aside from the diplomatic ramifications, the North's restrictions on aid groups are troubling in that they put at risk hundreds of thousands of people, particularly children, who are suffering from malnutrition and stunted growth.

"I don't know if this will cause another famine, but it is very disturbing because the North still needs food," said Lee Jong Mo, director of the Korean Sharing Movement, a large Seoul-based aid agency. He said South Korean nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs, have faced new restrictions on working in North Korea.

"Over the last month or so, NGOs have not been able to go to North Korea," Lee said. "Projects have been put on hold; political dialogue is on hold."

U.N. agencies and diplomats were informed last month that the regime no longer wished to participate in what is called the consolidated appeals process, a fund-raising mechanism used by the world body's organizations to coordinate their efforts. The U.N. program, which provides medical and agricultural assistance as well as food, is widely credited with reducing the percentage of North Korean children suffering from stunted growth, from 60 percent to 40 percent.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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