The United Nations is threatening to close a foundering international food distribution program in North Korea, and U.N. workers are blaming U.S. and South Korean officials for the shortfall in relief funds.
The World Food Program, which has been organizing the U.N. relief operation in North Korea, withdrew three of the four staff officials in its Pyongyang office Wednesday and announced that the office will close by mid-January if world governments do not make significant donations in the next few weeks.
At the heart of the issue is the insistence of some U.S. government specialists on North Korea that the floods that racked North Korea in September were not as calamitous as the Pyongyang government makes out. These specialists, who have access to intelligence reports, believe that Pyongyang is trying to hoodwink outsiders into providing food and medicines that are not really needed.
But the U.N. World Food Program staff, which has sent teams into North Korea to assess needs, bristles at the U.S. assessment. The teams, according to official U.N. documents, report that "hunger is widespread and malnutrition is already a problem."
"The latest team has found that the situation is worse than the first assessment team thought," said a U.N. official. "We have experts on the ground, and there are definite signs of famine."
Officially, the Clinton administration does not deny that North Korea is in need. State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns told a news conference Thursday that the United States has donated $225,000 for measles immunization and supplemental food for children. It was hampered from doing more, Burns said, because of a shortage of funds available for relief.
"We hope very much that the international community will respond to the U.N.'s call for further donations," Burns said. "We will continue to look at this situation closely, and if we do receive additional requests for aid, then we will weigh the request very carefully."
Despite such official comment, U.N. officials believe that the administration has no enthusiasm for the relief effort. Catherine Bertini, the American who directs the World Food Program from its headquarters in Rome, intends to appeal to the White House in the next few days for a greater U.S. commitment to the campaign.
U.N. officials believe that the world will lose an opportunity to break North Korean isolation if the food program is abandoned. Until the floods came in August, North Korea had steadfastly refused to accept offers of help from non-Communist outsiders. After the floods, however, North Korea asked for help.
The United Nations, after dispatching an assessment team there, issued a worldwide appeal in September for $8.8 million for food and transport to deliver it. Since then, the World Food Program has been able to collect only $500,000.
In addition, the United Nations appealed for $6.9 million on behalf of the World Health Organization, the U.N. Development Program and the U.N. Children's Fund, or UNICEF, for medicines, vaccines, clothing and food for children. The administration's donation of $225,000--a little more than 3% of what was needed--went to UNICEF. In all, the United Nations has received no more than $500,000 for this part of the appeal.
Times staff writer Jim Mann in Washington contributed to this report.