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U.S. ‘indecisive’ on food aid to North Korea

North Korea, September 26, 2011

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NGOs claim civilians are ‘caught in crossfire’ of politics

Despite repeated warnings over seven months that a potentially catastrophic food crisis is emerging in North Korea, the U.S. government remains indecisive over sending substantial food aid to help many of the nation’s civilians from starving to death.

“We don’t understand why food assistance is being withheld.” says Matt Ellingson of Samaritan’s Purse, who led a delegation of representatives from five U.S. non-governmental organizations (NGOs) into North Korea earlier this month. “The NGOs strongly recommended a food aid program for women and children months ago, and that program has received no response. We fear that millions of North Koreans are caught in a political crossfire.”

Since February, assessment teams from U.S. NGOs, the World Food Programme (WFP), the U.S. government and the European Commission’s humanitarian aid arm (ECHO) have visited North Korea and confirmed that food aid is urgently needed.

“President Obama pledged in his Inaugural Address that his Administration would help ‘nourish starved bodies’ in poor countries. When will the President live up to his powerful words for the people of North Korea?” asks Jim White of Mercy Corps. “Many innocent people are at risk today, and we know that food aid can save lives.”

In 2008-2009, Christian Friends of Korea, Global Resource Services, Mercy Corps, Samaritan’s Purse and World Vision conducted a program that delivered food aid to 900,000 North Koreans over nine months.

During September 3-10, a delegation of the same five NGOs visited the provinces of South Hwanghae, North Hwanghae and Kangwon – considered collectively to be the nation’s “breadbasket,” according to White.

The delegation consisted of six experts all with experience working in North Korea, and half of them were fluent in Korea, thereby enabling direct interviews with civilians without interpretation from North Korean officials.

The trip, made with U.S. government support after the North Korean government requested assistance, was in response to floods this summer. Heavy rains and winds from monsoon-strength storms battered the southern and southeastern provinces of the country – collapsing buildings, destroying gardens, and devastating crops, roads and railways.

“Health and food security, always fragile in North Korea, are deteriorating and people are vulnerable,” says Ellingson. “Already hungry children have been pushed over the edge by continued food shortages and diarrhea caused by dirty water and poor hygiene. Without immediate and direct intervention there is significant risk for a far greater crisis to unfold in the coming six to nine months.”

Delegation members met a 747 cargo plane carrying more than $3 million worth of emergency response supplies including oral rehydration salts, ready-to-use therapeutic foods, tarps and other items. They monitored the distribution of these supplies directly to civilians.