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U.S. aid to N. Korea 'not enough'

From Elise Labott
CNN Washington Bureau

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North Korea
World Food Programme
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The United States has said it would provide 50,000 tonnes of food aid to North Korea, but the World Food Program said it was not enough to meet the "desperate" need of the people.

U.S. Deputy State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said on Wednesday the pledge was made in response to a WFP appeal as a humanitarian gesture unrelated to efforts to restart stalled six-party talks aimed at ending North Korea's nuclear program.

"Our decisions are made on humanitarian considerations solely," he said, adding the amount was determined after a review of the need in North Korea, competing needs around the world and the ability of humanitarian organizations to monitor the assistance.

In an exclusive interview with CNN, WFP Asia Director Anthony Banbury called the donation "an important contribution but it is not enough."

"We are very grateful for it," Banbury said. "We will try and move to get that food into the country as soon as possible. But we need more than 50,000 tonnes. We need over 200,000 tonnes."

Banbury said because of a lack of donations, in recent months WFP has been forced to cut aid to about a million North Koreans, and is at risk of having to cut its aid entirely to millions more.

"If no new donations come in, 80 percent of the 6.5 million people we are trying to help will be without our assistance and they will be in a desperate situation," Banbury told CNN.

"They will not have enough food, and we aren't talking about average workers, we are talking about vulnerable groups, elderly people, pregnant women, young kids."

Banbury said the lack of donations had coupled with higher food prices resulting from North Korean economic reforms and the slow post-harvest season to create a serious food crisis in North Korea.

If no new donations come in, Banbury said there could be "the worst humanitarian crisis in North Korea we have seen since the mid '90s," when an estimated 1 million North Koreans died.

"We are totally running out of food. We are at a very low level and we are in desperate need, urgent need of new donations right now," he said.

Last year the United States also provided 50,000 tonnes of food aid to North Korea, one half of what it provided in 2003.

Ereli said in a written statement the United States also was prepared to support "targeted health interventions for children and small-scale food security projects in North Korea."

Banbury voiced concern that the focus of the international community has been "exclusively, or at least primarily" on the nuclear standoff with North Korea. (Full story)

"Meanwhile, 6.5 million innocent North Koreans desperately need food aid. They have nothing to with the polices of their government," he said. "They are in desperate need and the international community should get together and meet those needs."

White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said Wednesday that President George W. Bush "does not believe that food should be used as a diplomatic weapon."

"We have always had concerns, though, that that food is getting to the people who need it: the people who are starving, the people who are hungry," McClellan added.

"We want to make sure there are assurances that that food is going to those who need it, not to the government and not to the military in North Korea."

The United States, along with the international community, has voiced concern about the North Korean government controlling the food aid and preventing it from reaching those who need it the most.

"Food is a scarce commodity," Ereli said. "When it's a scarce commodity it has a value. And there are those who seek to exploit that value for purposes for which the aid is not intended. And that's why monitoring is so important."

Banbury said WFP has begun implementation of a new monitoring system that it recently negotiated with the North Korean government.

He said the system provides the "most significant improvements" in WFP monitoring since it began working in North Korea 10 years ago. The new system allows tracking of both small amounts -- going to homes, schools and orphanages -- and large quantities.

A senior State Department official said the new WFP controls in North Korea in part led to the U.S. decision to provide the aid.

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