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Published : 2014-05-22 20:30
Updated : 2014-05-22 20:30

The U.N. World Food Program faces daunting challenges in its programs in North Korea as a “critical” lack of funding threatens their viability, its chief said Thursday, calling on Pyongyang to make “changes” such as improving transparency with aid delivery to help court more donors.

Executive director Ertharin Cousin was here for a two-day stay after spending three days in Pyongyang until Wednesday. In Seoul, she and Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se initialed a partnership framework agreement designed to lay the legal and institutional groundwork for the country’s contribution to the world’s largest humanitarian agency.

Though crop yields have reportedly increased in the impoverished state over the last couple years, Cousin expressed concerns about the WFP’s “critically underfunded” projects.

“We are concerned about our ability to continue to operate if we don’t receive additional funding for that program,” she told reporters after the inaugural ceremony.

The Rome-based organization runs programs aimed at curbing hunger and malnutrition among women and children in North Korea, while providing rare data on food rations and grain production.

But it has in recent years been struggling to raise funds as international sentiment has grown frosty in the face of the Kim Jong-un regime’s steadfast pursuit of nuclear weapons and other provocations.

The WFP’s food aid to the communist country hit an all-time low last year with some 38,000 tons, less than one-third of its target of 130,000 tons.

Early this year, the agency called for about $200 million for nutritional support to some 2.4 million North Koreans until June 2015 but said it had collected only some $48 million as of May.

Pyongyang, for its part, should take the WFP’s “suggestions” made during her visit, Cousin said, which included talks with Supreme People’s Assembly president Kim Yong-nam and Foreign Minister Ri Su-yong. She did not elaborate, but the centerpiece is likely to be greater transparency and access to monitor food distribution, officials here said.

“We’re hopeful that we will see changes that are necessary to ensure that the donor community will provide us with additional assistance required so that we can continue our efforts in the country,” Cousin said.

Praising South Korea’s ascent from an aid recipient to a provider, the latest pact marks a “milestone moment” for the WFP’s relationship with Seoul, she said.

“It formalizes a growing partnership between the two (sides) to ensure that not only do the hungry and chronically (undernourished) children in the world benefit from the investment of the government, but they benefit from the capacity of the government that has moved from a nation where people were hungry to now being a significant donor in the world in hunger,” Cousin noted.

From 1964-84, the WFP injected more than $102 million into 23 projects across South Korea such as for flood control, road construction and land reclamation.

Now the country works with the institution to fight hunger and poverty in the underdeveloped world, with its 2013 donations topping $15 million. They are also in consultations for the so-called “1,000 days project” to provide health care to pregnant North Korean women until their children turn 2 years old.

Cousin took the helm of the WFP in 2012, bringing 20-plus years of nonprofit, government and corporate experience in the field. A U.S. native, she served as ambassador to Rome from 2009 and worked also in the Bill Clinton administration including as White House liaison to the State Department.

By Shin Hyon-hee (heeshin@heraldcorp.com)

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