WFP seeks Seoul’s help in feeding N.K. babies, moms

By Shin Hyon-hee
  • Published : May 25, 2014 - 21:02
  • Updated : May 25, 2014 - 21:03
The U.N. World Food Program is seeking Seoul’s involvement in its program to fight acute malnutrition among babies and mothers in North Korea, which suffers from dwindling funding amid political tension.

The world’s largest humanitarian agency is in consultation with the South Korean government over the 2-year-old program to provide health care to some 2.4 million North Korean women and their children until age 2.

President Park Geun-hye vowed support for the “1,000 days” project in her speech in the German city of Dresden in March.

A series of nuclear and missile tests has squeezed foreign assistance on which the communist regime relies heavily to feed its 24 million population.

The funding shortage has placed the WFP program at a “very crucial juncture,” its executive director Ertharin Cousin said. 
U.N. World Food Program Executive Director Ertharin Cousin

The organization has collected only 20 percent of the $200 million required until June 2015.

“If we do not receive funding for that program, we will need to make decisions about how and if we can go forward with the nutrition program even in a reduced format,” Cousin told a news conference in Seoul on Friday.

Despite improvements in agricultural production in recent years, the nutrition of mothers and babies remains a “big concern,” with about 30 percent of children stunted, said Kenro Oshidari, regional director for Asia.

Yet the Rome-based group has already been forced to scale back its existing school food program from 1.6 million children to 600,000, while closing five factories that made specialized, nutritious biscuits.

“With the nutrition program you cannot reduce the amount of commodities or support that you provide,” Cousin noted.

“And there is no shortcut in such a program. You either complete what is required or not.”

Cousin was here for a two-day stay after a three-day visit to Pyongyang earlier in the week. In Seoul, she and Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se initiated a partnership framework agreement designed to set up the legal and institutional foundation for the country’s contributions to the WFP.

Though Seoul officials did not make any “firm commitment” for the North Korea initiative this time, her talks with them were “positive,” she said, expressing hope for future progress.

“We’re very pleased by the recognition of (South Korea) of the importance of the 1,000 days program and the values of the WFP input,” Cousin said.

“What they requested from us was a specific proposal, because our program has a number of components … which the team will work to deliver as soon as possible.”

Should South Korea’s contribution to the project materialize, it could mark a watershed in its supply of humanitarian aid to the poverty-stricken neighbor, a key ingredient of Park’s “trustpolitik” policy aimed at reengaging Pyongyang while deterring its security threat.

Though Seoul has gradually increased its donations to the WFP, reaching $15.3 million last year, none of that money has been funneled into North Korea since 2007. Civic groups have continued support, however.

The U.S. also halted food handouts in 2009 after Pyongyang expelled foreign monitors.

The dwindling global assistance partly reflects persistent concerns that the aid would only fatten the country’s military and political elites instead of the hungry rank and file.

“Greater access and transparency of food delivery is an important factor that will make way for our support for the 1,000 days program given the pervasive diversion concern among the public here,” an official at Seoul’s Foreign Ministry told The Korea Herald, requesting anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter.

Cousin, for her part, requested greater access to marketplaces, opportunities for additional household surveys and better conditions for other U.N. bodies during her trip to Pyongyang.

She also inspected a hospital, an orphanage, an infant center and a household, and met with officials including Kim Yong-nam, president of the Supreme People’s Assembly; Ri Su-yong, foreign minister; Pak Myong-guk, vice foreign minister; Go Myong-hui, vice agriculture minister; and Ri Hung-sik, secretary-general of the national coordinating committee for the WFP.

The agency has an exclusive agreement with the North, which facilitates the institution to monitor food distribution without notice, including through Korean-speaking staff. Its workers on average make 200 visits per month to schools, hospitals, orphanages and households.

Yet the additional steps are essential in helping to entice more donors, according to the executive director.

“What we want to do is to ensure that we have the ability to provide even more evidence to support our ability to assess, implement, monitor and evaluate this program to ensure that we’re reaching beneficiaries who are in need, and that we are serving those benefits to achieve the outcome of more nutrition for children in (North Korea),” Cousin added.

The 57-year-old executive director began her five-year term in 2012, building on 25-plus years of nonprofit, government and corporate experience in the area. Prior to leading the WFP, she was U.S. ambassador to Italy from 2009 and served in the Bill Clinton administration including as White House liaison to the State Department.

By Shin Hyon-hee (