SEOUL A top U.N. humanitarian official urged regional powers on Monday to put politics aside amid a worsening food crisis in North Korea, saying the smattering of aid which has reached the isolated country was making a difference.
North Korea's chronic food shortages have been compounded since the end of 2008 by an about-face in policy by the South Korean and U.S. governments, which suspended food assistance over the North's nuclear program and food-monitoring problems.
At the same time, China is believed to have also sharply cut food aid to its ally, a nonpartisan report by the U.S. Congressional Research Service said in June.
U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos told reporters in Seoul that the core principle with respect to humanitarian aid was that it should not be politicized.
"You do not judge people on the basis of the political environment in which they are living," she said after visiting the North last week to assess the situation.
Amos said the North has endured a "food gap" of about 1 million tonnes out of a total food requirement of 5.3 million tonnes for the past few years.
The United Nations estimates that more than 6 million North Koreans urgently need food aid, but appeals for help have largely fallen on deaf ears with the World Food Programme's appeal only about 30 percent funded.
Russia and the European Union have been the biggest donors.
"I saw where it is getting through, it is making a real difference," Amos said, adding the North appeared to be adhering to the terms of emergency aid by allowing international Korean speakers and random inspections to ensure aid reaches the needy.
The "food gap" has not increased this year, with the harvest as good, if not better, than last year despite severe flooding and typhoons, and little impact from rising global commodity prices.
Still, Amos said the crisis is worsening, as reflected in rising levels of malnutrition throughout the country.
"In the North, almost one in two children are chronically malnourished," she said. "A nurse I met .. said the number of malnourished children coming to her hospital had increased 50 percent since last year."
North Korea suffered a crippling famine in the 1990s that killed an estimated one million people and has seen chronic food shortages due to mismanaged farm policy, a string of natural disasters and sanctions imposed on its nuclear and missile programs.
Critics of food aid accuse the North's authoritarian leadership of siphoning off aid to feed its million-strong army or stockpiling in the event of further, tightened sanctions.
Data shows that much of the 1 million tonne food shortfall is the result of decisions by South Korea and the United States to halt food assistance to the North.
The Congressional Research Service report said in June that the United States, South Korea, China and Japan had contributed more than 80 percent of food aid to the North from 1985 to 2009. Now, much of that has stopped.
Amos said the food crisis should be kept separate from talks in Geneva between North Korea and the United States which are aimed restarting regional nuclear talks.
"I think we are pleased and delighted that talks are ongoing ... but I would not want them to be talking about humanitarian aid to the DPRK," she referring to the North by the initials of its official name. "It's not appropriate."
Officially, U.S. policy keeps food aid separate from strategic interests, but analysts say Washington is known to have used food aid to secure the North's participation and increased cooperation in security negotiations.
(Editing by Robert Birsel)