$221m aid plea for North Korea

A GROUP of UN agencies is asking for $221 million in international aid for North Korea, where food shortages, poverty and poor health care services have put the country in a state of “chronic emergency”, an agency spokesman said yesterday.

Rick Corsino, director of the World Food Programme in North Korea, said Pyongyang still faces a tremendous food shortage despite improved harvests, and malnutrition has reached "alarming rates", while health services are "still precarious and likely worsening". He said there were some signs of improvement from last year most notably in the capital city of Pyongyang including more regular power and water supplies, but those were not enough to help in the country's situation overall.

"It's a continuation of a chronic emergency and one without a clear end in sight," Corsino said. "By all measures, the DPRK remains a country in need of massive humanitarian support," DPRK stands for the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, North Korea's official name.

Fifteen UN agencies and non-governmental organisations launched the appeal in Geneva yesterday on Wednesday, Corsino said. The Rome-based WFP is asking for $192 million; UNICEF $12.7 million; the World Health Organisation $7 million; the Food and Agriculture Organisation $3 million; and the UN Population Fund $672,000.

Eigil Sorensen, the WHO representative in Pyongyang, said the agency's main focus in the country is the control of communicable diseases, including tuberculosis and malaria, as well as the prevention of HIV and preparedness against diseases like SARS. The outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome in neighbouring China and surrounding regions "highlighted the extreme vulnerability of the health services in the DPRK", he said.

North Korea has received about eight million tons of food aid since 1995, when the secretive Stalinist regime revealed its state farm industry had collapsed from decades of mismanagement and the loss of Soviet subsidies. While harvests have improved over the last three years, domestic production is still expected to fall "dangerously below minimum food requirements", said Michael Stapleton, the North Korea programme coordinator for the FAO.

Only 57% of the $225 million the agencies asked for in 2003 has been pledged, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Corsino warned that unless more contributions are received soon, the WFP will have to stop feeding about three million people, most of them women and children.

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