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WFP chief sees ‘sense of optimism’ in North Korea

The head of the UN‘s World Food Program said Tuesday there is a “sense of optimism” among North Koreans and their leadership ahead of a historic summit between North Korea and the US, following his four-day visit to the country.

David Beasley, the executive director of the World Food Program, noted the isolated country’s “genuine desire to be more open” as its leader Kim Jong-un appears to be seeking to break out of diplomatic isolation.

“In my opinion, there was a tremendous sense of optimism by the leadership, by people I met with in the hopes that they are turning a new chapter in history.. a new page,” he told reporters during a news conference in central Seoul.

David Beasley (Yonhap)
David Beasley (Yonhap)

He spent two days in Pyongyang and two in the countryside from May 8 to 11, visiting villages, farms, schools and nurseries, also meeting North Korean students, farmers, mothers and teachers as well as the country‘s leadership.

His visit came just a month before US President Donald Trump is set to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to negotiate concerning the North’s nuclear and missile weapons programs on June 12 in Singapore. The US has offered to help rebuild the country on the condition of its complete, irreversible and verifiable denuclearization. 

Beasley said he had “practical meetings” and “frank conversations” with North Korean leaders, explaining the UN agency needs to be granted greater access as well as more information and data to help the reclusive country.

He said he had underscored the need to have a monitoring system in place so that donors can clearly understand North Koreans’ needs and make sure funds go to the intended beneficiaries.

North Korean officials’ reactions were “very positive,” he said.

“The reaction I received, I observed from the DPRK leadership, when I talked about having a greater access and why, was very positive,” he said, referring to the North’s official name of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

“What was pleasing was that there seemed to be genuine desire to be more open.. and more frank and candid discussions,” he said. “I must say it is a good beginning, and we are hopeful this positive momentum will continue.”

Many countries have been skeptical about sending aid to North Korea, suspecting the money would be used to support the reclusive regime or its development of nuclear and missile programs. Even WFP staff have not been given full access to the country.

Beasley, who said he had been given greater access than many of his predecessors, said he had not seen starvation like the country had back in the 1990s. But North Koreans were still not getting nutrition they needed.

“Going from villages to villages, we did not see starvation, but there are clearly issues of undernutrition and malnutrition. Very little mechanization. Very few paved roads,” he said. 

According to a 2017 report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 10.3 million people in North Korea -- about 41 percent -- are undernourished. Many people suffer from chronic malnutrition due to lack of essential proteins, fats, vitamins and minerals.

“This is spring time. I saw men and women out in the field working, very structured and very organized. Every inch of the land is being utilized. They are planning crops up to the edge of the road, down embankments, working with oxen, plows, shovels, rakes and hoes,” he said.


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