Five aid organizations led by Mercy Corps helped this week to deliver the first significant U.S. food shipment to North Korea in eight years.
A ship docked at a North Korean port Sunday with 37,000 metric tons of wheat, the first installment of 500,000 tons promised by Washington during the next 12 months.
Nancy Lindborg, president of Portland-based Mercy Corps, said the shipment arrives just in time, as North Korea again faces severe food shortages. An assessment team dispatched by Mercy Corps and four other aid organizations found that cereal foodstocks would last only through June.
"People are down to a 150-gram ration a day for the month of June" in the 25 counties the humanitarian organizations will serve, Lindborg said Monday. "That will barely keep you alive."
The consortium led by Mercy Corps will deliver 100,000 tons of 500,000 funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development. The United Nations World Food Program will deliver the other 400,000 tons. Shipments will include corn, corn-soy blend and other types of food.
What's different about the current shipments is the degree to which Mercy Corps and other agencies will be able to monitor distribution. Between 1997 and 2000, when Mercy Corps participated in a similar program responding to a severe famine, aid workers had to travel in and out of the isolated country.
This time, 16 aid workers -- many of them fluent in Korean -- will be allowed to live and work for the full year in Pyongyang, the capital, and in Chagang and North Pyongan provinces. They will be able to ensure that the most vulnerable citizens receive the food, Lindborg said.
"We'll target mainly children and elderly," Lindborg said. "We expect our portion to reach 550,000 people over the course of the year."
Sunday's shipment arrived days after North Korea blew up the cooling tower at its main reactor site, promising not to make more plutonium for bombs. Washington lifted some economic sanctions and agreed to remove North Korea from a list of state sponsors of terrorism.
But U.S. officials said the humanitarian program, in the works for months, was unrelated to progress on nuclear talks.
Mercy Corps' consortium includes a handful of other organizations that have continued to work in North Korea in recent years: World Vision, Samaritan's Purse, Global Resource Services and Christian Friends of Korea.
The nine members of the consortium's assessment team, who just returned from the North, found dire conditions -- although nothing as serious as during the 1990s famine.
"I have visited North Korea many times through the years, and I have observed an extreme deterioration of the food situation in the past year," said Heidi Linton, executive director of Christian Friends of Korea.
The World Food Program and UNICEF reported in their latest large-scale survey that 37 percent of young children are chronically malnourished and one-third of mothers are malnourished and anemic.
"The increasing sense of deterioration in food security is coupled now with reduced food coming in from China and South Korea and rising food prices globally," Lindborg said. "A big typhoon that hit Korea last August-September really wiped out their crops."
World Vision, of Seattle, is helping to lead the aid program.
"This will help many vulnerable people survive amidst North Korea's chronic food shortages," said George Ward, senior vice president of international programs for World Vision in the United States.