U.N. trying to convince North Korea not to cut aid staff

By Michelle Nichols
FILE PHOTO - A North Korean flag flies on a mast at the Permanent Mission of North Korea in Geneva

By Michelle Nichols

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The United Nations said on Thursday it was trying to convince North Korea not to cut the number of international aid staff deployed by the world body to carry out "critical" food, nutrition and health work in the Asian country.

North Korea wants the U.N. to reduce the number of international staff because its programs have failed "due to the politicization of U.N. assistance by hostile forces," according to a letter seen by Reuters on Wednesday.

The U.N. estimates 10.3 million people - almost half the country's population - are in need and some 41% of North Koreans are undernourished, while in February Pyongyang said it was facing a food shortfall this year and had to halve rations, blaming drought, floods and sanctions.

U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said the United Nations was "in dialogue with the government at this point on the issue of cutting international aid staff in DPRK." North Korea is formally known as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

"Current U.N. operations already have a light footprint on the ground and continued capacity at current levels is vital for ensuring continued U.N. support for critical food security, water, nutrition programming as well as mobilizing resources," Dujarric told reporters.

He said that in 2018 the United Nations and other international aid groups reached more than 2 million people with humanitarian assistance.

In an Aug. 21 letter, Kim Chang Min, secretary general for North Korea's National Coordinating Committee for the U.N., told the top U.N. official posted in the country that the number of international staff should be cut by the end of the year.

North Korea wants the number of international staff with the U.N. Development Programme to be cut to one or two from six, the World Health Organization to four from six and the U.N. Children's Fund UNICEF should cut its 13 staff by one or two.

Kim said the number of international staff with the World Food Programme should be reduced "according to the amount of food aid to be provided" once the agency and North Korean agree how to implement a plan for 2019 to 2021.

There was also no need for a humanitarian aid coordination officer, Kim wrote, adding that U.N. aid officials could instead "visit as and when required."

The move comes amid stalled talks between the United States and North Korea aimed at dismantling Pyongyang's nuclear and missile programs. The U.N. Security Council has unanimously ratcheted up sanctions on North Korea since 2006 in a bid to choke funding for those programs.

The North Korean mission to the United Nations said on Wednesday that Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho would not attend the annual gathering of world leaders at the United Nations later this month "due to his schedule." Ri has attended the high-level U.N. meeting in New York for the past three years.

A U.S. State Department spokesperson said on Thursday it was aware of reports that Ri would not travel to New York, adding: "We stand ready to continue our diplomatic conversation with the North Koreans."


(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Tom Brown)