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N.K. promised transparency in distribution of food: WFP

North Korea has vowed full disclosure of how donated food is distributed among its people, a senior World Food Program official said Thursday in an apparent bid to encourage Seoul to send food to the impoverished state.

The comments by Claudia Von Roehl, director of the U.N. food agency in Pyongyang, come as Washington prepares to send its own delegation to North Korea to monitor the food conditions there, a move analysts say will soon lead to resumption of food aid.

“North Korea has suffered a series of shocks in recent months, leaving the country highly vulnerable to a food crisis,” Von Roehl said during a forum held by the South Korea parliament Thursday.

North Korea has given its word over the “transparency of food distribution,” Von Roehl said, adding her agency would immediately notify the international community of any problems that may occur regarding the issue.

South Korea has been facing increasing international pressure to resume shipments of food to the impoverished North with reports saying even its staunchest ally Washington would be sending aid soon.

Seoul, once Pyongyang’s largest donor and trade partner, has been decreasing aid since the Lee Myung-bak administration took power in 2008. Food shipments stopped completely last year, when North Korea conducted two deadly attacks that killed 50 South Koreans.

Some 6 million people are in urgent need of international food assistance, the WFP official said, adding that her agency would first provide food to some 6.7 million North Koreans in the most vulnerable sector of children and pregnant women.

The WFP will also increase the number of international staff there to 60 and deploy Korean speakers to tighten monitoring over the North’s distribution of food, she said.

Pyongyang’s past reluctance to disclose its food distribution process to outsiders have often sparked suspicions that most of the aid is being used to feed its army and political elite.

South Korea also suspects the North’s ironfisted Kim Jong-il regime may be stockpiling rice to release on the 100th anniversary of its late founder Kim Il-sung next year.

Meanwhile, the U.S. will be sending a fact-finding team to North Korea to examine its food shortages as early as next week, according to U.S. officials and diplomatic sources here.

State Department spokesman Mark Toner told a press briefing Wednesday that the U.S. is considering sending Robert King, envoy for North Korean human rights, to Pyongyang to assess the food situation.

“We continue to assess the need for food assistance to North Korea and we’re looking at a possible trip. But again, no firm dates,” he said.

Washington, which remains undecided over the issue on the surface, has formerly been firm not to resume talks or aid before Seoul is satisfied with Pyongyang’s apology over last year’s violence. The North remains mute over the issue.

North Korea has relied mostly on outside aid to feed its population of 24 million since the mid-1990s. According to the U.N., more than 6 million North Koreans, about a quarter of the communist state’s population, need urgent aid of some 475,000 tons of food.

By Shin Hae-in (hayney@heraldcorp.com)
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