A U.S. ship carrying thousands of tons of food aid has arrived in North Korea, after the country agreed to expanded international assistance for its impoverished people, the U.N. food agency said Monday.
The World Food Program said the American ship that arrived Sunday carried 37,000 tons of wheat, the first installment of 500,000 tons in promised U.S. aid that will be distributed by the United Nations.
The aid was not directly related to the ongoing nuclear talks between Washington and Pyongyang, as the U.S. says it does not use food as a means of diplomatic coercion. However, the shipment came just days after the North handed over its delayed atomic declaration and blew up the cooling tower at its main reactor site.
In exchange, Washington has removed some economic sanctions against the North and said it would remove the country of about 23 million from a U.S. State Department list of state sponsors of terrorism.
North Korea agreed to the new aid program Friday, WFP spokesman Paul Risley said, the same day Pyongyang blew up the reactor tower.
The American food supplies will help the WFP expand its operations to feed more than 5 million people, up from 1.2 million who receiving international aid, the organization said in a statement.
The increased aid comes as the WFP and other groups have issued increasingly dire warnings about the food situation in the North.
The country’s regular annual shortages were expected to worsen this year due to floods last summer that decimated the North’s agricultural heartland. The U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization has said North Korea’s cereal crop will fall more than 1.5 million tons short this year, its largest food gap since 2001.
Shortages have already led to prices soaring at the markets to which North Koreans who can afford it turn to when public rations fail to provide enough food for their families.
The U.N. agencies are conducting a food survey expected to be ready in July to determine where to distribute the aid, but the WFP said preliminary reports “indicate a high level of food insecurity in the country.”
Risley said the WFP may have to request additional food donations depending on the results of that survey.
The North has long bristled at the monitoring requirements of international donors to make sure that the food is reaching the needy. However, the WFP said that North Korea had permitted the agency to sent nearly 50 more international workers to the country for monitoring.
“The challenge will now be to put words into action and quickly expand distributions of badly needed food aid to the hungriest people” of North Korea, Jean-Pierre de Margerie, WFP’s Pyongyang-based country director, said in a statement.
American relief groups will distribute 100,000 tons of the aid in two northwestern provinces, with the WFP operating elsewhere.
The United States is the largest donor to the WFP’s aid program in North Korea, having pledged $38.9 million, followed by South Korea at $20 million.