June 12, 2012 / 9:35 AM / 7 years ago

U.N. optimistic on U.S. aid for North Korea, food still a problem

BEIJING (Reuters) - The United Nations is optimistic it can get the United States to provide aid for isolated North Korea where chronic problems with its agriculture remain a huge stumbling block to development, the top UN official in the country said on Tuesday.

The United States said in April it would not go forward with planned food aid to North Korea, after the impoverished nation’s unsuccessful launch of a long-range missile which Washington had warned would have consequences.

North Korea, ostracized by the West for developing nuclear weapons in breach of UN Security Council resolutions, walked out of six-party disarmament talks involving the two Koreas, the United States, China, Japan and Russia in 2008. It expelled UN nuclear inspectors in 2009.

Jerome Sauvage said the United Nations was seeking $198 million in funding for its mostly humanitarian assistance projects this year, mainly for to address food and health needs.

Sauvage, UN Resident Coordinator in Pyongyang, said he had met representatives from donor countries, including the United States and South Korea, in Beijing this week to encourage them to give.

“It’s a long-term relationship; it’s complex,” Sauvage said of efforts to get the United States to give aid. “We are very much hopeful that they will be back in talks in such a way that they can provide humanitarian aid to North Korea.”

There is “certainly a posture of interest” from both Washington and Seoul to give this year, he added.

North Korea suffered famine in the 1990s that killed an estimated million people and has continued to endure chronic food shortages.

Sauvage said that North Korea’s food shortfall this year should be less serious than last year.

“We are expecting a food deficit of 414,000 metric tonnes. Last year we were well above that; it was twice as high.”

But more effort needed to be put into addressing the country’s underlying agricultural issues, including lack of mechanization, fertilizers, irrigation and energy, he said.

“We cannot just year in, year out provide nothing but this kind of fill-the-gap aid. We feel a major need to address agricultural weakness,” Sauvage said.

“Agriculture will always be chronically unable to fully provide the full amount of food that is necessary unless those structural problems are addressed,” he added.

“One child in two is stunted ... These kinds of numbers can be compared with certain parts of Bangladesh or Central Africa,” Sauvage said. “You’re talking about a generation of people being malnourished and that eventually gets transmitted generation to generation. It is a slowly unfolding disaster.”

Critics accuse the North’s one-party leadership of siphoning off aid to feed its million-strong army or stockpiling in the event of further, tightened sanctions over its nuclear program.

Editing by Nick Macfie

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