UN humanitarian chief to hold food talks in N.Korea

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UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos was headed for China ahead of a visit to North Korea, stricken by a new food crisis, as the UN presses Pyongyang to give aid agencies more freedom.

Amos will have talks with government officials in China this week, before going on next Monday to meet ministers in the isolated North where the UN estimates that a third of children aged under five are malnourished.

North Korea puts severe restrictions on the movement of foreigners, however, and the United Nations became so frustrated that it would only send aid to areas where it could get access.

"Those living in counties which remain off limits to humanitarian agencies, therefore, do not receive assistance," UN leader Ban Ki-moon said in a report last month on human rights in the North.

Ban again pressed for more cooperation when he met North Korea's vice-foreign minister, Pak Gil-yon, in New York last month.

Many governments have raised concerns that food aid could be diverted to the North's 1.1 million strong army.

Kim Jong-il's government has allowed more access this year, however, as the food crisis has worsened and daily rations have been further cut, aid groups say.

Amos' spokeswoman, Amanda Pitt, said restrictions had become much "easier" across most of the country and the World Food Programme can now carry out "random" visits with 24 hours notice to check how aid is used.

UN agencies are now allowed to employ Korean-speaking international staff for the first time, she added.

"We know there is a severe food security situation and we need to know how we can improve international support and that is what Valerie Amos will be assessing," said the spokeswoman.

The United Nations has launched a $73 million appeal for North Korea, but it has only been 34% funded this year.

Humanitarian support to North Korea has fallen to a tenth of what it was a decade ago and the country "is now one of the world’s most chronic under funded humanitarian emergencies," according to Hiroyuki Konuma, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization's Asia representative.

Diplomats say food aid to the North has become a political weapon on top of the "aid fatigue" accentuated by the international financial crisis. South Korea has severely restricted aid attacks on a South Korean warship and an island in 2010 and 2011.

Amos will hold talks with the government ministers in Pyongyang on October 18, her office said. The list of ministers she will meet has not yet been finalized.

She will leave the North on October 21 to go back to Beijing and then South Korea for talks with government officials and private aid groups.

South Korea's Unification Minister Yu Woo-ik, who is in charge of relations with the North, said last week that he did not think the North's crisis is "very serious".

The UN World Food Programme said last month that one-third of North Korean children under five are chronically malnourished.

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