My First Monitoring Trip

This is the third episode in a series by Erich Weingartner, recounting his days as the founding Head of the Food Aid Liason Unit (FALU), an independent section of the United Nations World Food Program, from 1997-1999. All photos are by Erich Weingartner. Previous episodes were “My Bumpy Road to Pyongyang” and “My Introduction to Nampo Port.”

DPRK Kindergarten

“It’s all a matter of perception, you know,” Naresh answered with a knowing smile. “Reality is just an illusion.”

I had asked my Bangladeshi colleague Naresh Talukder how we were going to verify that what we would see was real. We were in a WFP vehicle barreling at top speed along a paved, almost completely empty superhighway, heading south from Pyongyang. My eyes were glued to the road as I conversed with him. This was my first monitoring trip. My heart was still in a rush of excitement, trying to grasp the reality of exploring a hidden corner of our globe that few foreign eyes had seen.

“Sounds a bit too Hindu for my taste,” I quipped.

“Not all Bangladeshis are Muslims, you know.” He was looking for something in his briefcase. “You Westerners are far too concerned with facts and figures, imagining that this is the way to harness reality.” Read the rest of this entry »

My Introduction to Nampo Port

[This is the second episode in a series by Erich Weingartner, recounting his days as the founding Head of the Food Aid Liason Unit (FALU), an independent section of the United Nations World Food Program, from 1997-1999. The previous episode was “My Bumpy Road to Pyongyang”.]

“Do you have any plans for lunch?”

All I could see was my Bangladeshi colleague’s smiling face peeking at an angle through the door. I was seated on a kitchen chair, the only piece of furniture in the bedroom that was to serve as my office. I was glad for the interruption, because I had difficulty making sense of the file of “monitoring reports” balanced precariously on my knees.“I was going to ask you where you go for lunch around here,” I responded. The diplomatic compound where the UN offices were located seemed devoid of commercial establishments.

Nampo Port (Photo by Erich Weingartner)

“Normally I eat at home or at the diplomatic club,” said Mahbub,[i] “but today I am going to Nampo port. Do you have your passport with you?”

“Yes, always.”

“The blue one?”

“My Canadian passport.”

“Mmm, that might be a problem. I will check with FDRC.”

The FDRC[ii] was the unit in the Foreign Affairs Ministry that served as official DPRK counterpart to all humanitarian agencies following the 1995 floods. This was in the early days of the relationship, a time when the FDRC was still learning by trial and error how to navigate the precarious fissure between the requirements of foreign agencies and the constraints of domestic regimen. Read the rest of this entry »

My Bumpy Road to Pyongyang

[This is the first episode in a series by Erich Weingartner, recounting his days as the founding Head of the Food Aid Liason Unit (FALU), an independent section of the United Nations World Food Program, from 1997-1999.]

The Tower of Juche Idea, Pyongyang (Photo by Vincent Yu, AP)

Tower of the Juche Idea, Pyongyang (Photo by Vincent Yu, AP)

When I was summoned to the office of my new boss, the other staff looked at me as though I was about to enter a lion’s den. I paused at the door, took a deep breath, and entered. I wanted to make a good impression in my first meeting with the UN World Food Programme (WFP) DPRK Country Director. She was reading a file on her desk when I came in. Not certain if she had noticed me, I knocked on the open door.

“Close the door and sit down!” she snapped, without looking up.

I sat in the only chair I could see, across from her desk. I looked around as she continued reading in silence. Her spacious office used to be the master bedroom of the United Nations Resident Representative in Pyongyang. It was sparsely furnished with a desk and a large filing cabinet. When the WFP established its DPRK country office in 1996, it set up operations in the vacant residence of the UNDP compound.

At the time of my arrival there were only five international staff. The British deputy-director had greeted me that morning when I arrived jet lagged from the hotel. He showed me the empty downstairs bedroom that was to be my office and introduced me to the young North Korean assistant who said he would take care of my every need. I also met the two Bangladeshi monitors, the German office manager and two local staff in a living/dining room area that had been converted into an open-concept office on the ground floor. Read the rest of this entry »

FAO/WFP Crop Assessment Report Published

(Photo by Erich Weingartner, December 2010)

An FAO/WFP Crop and Food Security Assessment Mission (CFSAM) visited DPRK at the request of the Government from 3 to 17 October to assess the 2011 main-crop harvest, forecast the 2012 production of winter and spring crops, estimate cereal import requirements for the 2011/12 marketing year (November 2011 to October 2012), to assess the household food security situation and estimate food assistance needs.

This is an annual assessment that calculates staple cereal availability and needs, on which is based the WFP food aid appeal for the following year. As in previous years, the DPRK is suffering from a net food deficit. The report notes the following:

The total cereal import requirement in 2011/12 is estimated at 739 000 tonnes. As indicated by various CFSAM reports in the past, since mid-1990s the cereal equivalent import requirement (i.e. the national food deficit), has hovered around 1 million tonnes, reaching over 2 million tonnes in 2000/01, the year of the worst harvest. Last year’s CFSAM estimated the cereal import requirements at 867 000 tonnes which was later revised upwards to 1.09 million tonnes due to losses of the early crops. The food gap has narrowed this year, but it still remains at a significantly high level. Read the rest of this entry »

Is Canada quietly feeding North Koreans? by Erich Weingartner

Without much fanfare, several countries have made modest donations to the WFP for food distribution in the DPRK. Surprisingly, one of these is Canada. Readers may remember that in response to a request by CanKor, the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) last May indicated that “Canada has not made any further commitments to support the delivery of humanitarian assistance beyond those made between 2007 and 2009 through the World Food Programme.” (See: Will Canada Provide Humanitarian Aid to the DPRK?)

It turns out that isn’t quite accurate. The DPRK “Project Profile” on CIDA’s own website, dated 17 February 2011, indicates that Canada pledged $2,500,000 for food aid to the DPRK via the WFP. (See: Project profile for Food Assistance in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea – WFP 2011) It also states that the grant is for 2011-2013.

Meanwhile, the WFP website indicates that Canada contributed $2,502,503 for the WFP’s current emergency operation in DPRK, designed to target the 3.5 million people most at risk of serious damage to their health as a result of the current food shortages. (See: WFP Operations page for DPRK)

Our request for clarification to CIDA has remained unanswered for the past two weeks. Meanwhile, Abdurrahim Siddiqui, the Deputy-Country Director for WFP Pyongyang offered this clarification in an email message to CanKor: Read the rest of this entry »

Catherine Bertini recommends ROK and USA resume food aid

[Catherine Bertini was Executive Director of the UN World Food Programme during the North Korean Famine of the late 1990s. She was interviewed for 2 hours in Seoul early November when she attended the 2011 International Conference on Humanitarian and Development Assistance to the DPRK. Currently she is Professor of Public Administration and International Affairs at the Maxwell School of Syracuse University. This article was written by Lee Haye-ah for Yonhap News Agency. –CanKor.]

Catherine Bertini, former executive director of the World Food Programme speaks to reporters in Seoul on 4 Nov 2011 (Yonhap)

The World Food Program (WFP) believes South Korea and the United States should resume food aid to North Korea by first offering a small amount and monitoring its fair distribution, a former chief of the U.N. agency said Friday, refuting claims that the aid does not reach its intended beneficiaries.

Catherine Bertini, who led the WFP for 10 years until 2002, said the suggestion was made to her by Claudia von Roehl, the current WFP director to North Korea, during a recent meeting in Seoul.

South Korea and the U.S., once major donors to the impoverished communist state, suspended large-scale food aid to the North in the past several years, citing concerns about its fair distribution and Pyongyang’s nuclear defiance.

The allies have so far been reluctant to resume the aid amid conflicting reports about North Korea’s food situation, and as they continue to press Pyongyang to take responsibility for two deadly attacks that killed a total of 50 South Koreans last year.

“The United Nations and the World Food Program are very hopeful that both countries will soon be in a position to make renewed food aid contributions through the WFP to the DPRK,” Bertini told a group of reporters at a hotel in downtown Seoul.

DPRK is the acronym of North Korea’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Read the rest of this entry »

50th Anniversary of the World Food Programme

[Today, 50 years ago, on 23 November 1961, the United Nation’s World Food Programme (WFP) was founded. The following is a statement by Canada’s Minister of International Cooperation, the Hon. Beverley J. Oda. — CanKor.]

Today, the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) celebrates its 50th anniversary. For half a century, WFP has been on the front lines of humanitarian situations throughout the world and provided food to more than 100 million of the world’s most vulnerable people. In November 1961, Canada was proud to support the founding of WFP and, today, Canada is the second biggest single country donor to WFP.

The world is facing serious food security challenges. At the present time, an estimated 925 million people suffer from chronic hunger. World food stocks are at the lowest levels ever. This year, higher food prices moved an additional 44 million people into poverty, and increased disasters and crises reduced arable land and food sources.

I commend WFP on its continued efforts to find innovative approaches to integrate nutrition into its programs, increase aid effectiveness, and support local farmers and markets.

I would also like to make special recognition of the staff of WFP and commend them for their dedication and courage. WFP staff work in some of the most challenging environments to reduce hunger, often putting their own lives at risk. Their dedication to ending hunger is an inspiration to us all.

Please join me in celebrating WFP’s 50 years of service to humanity.

Beverley J. Oda
Minister of International Cooperation

The European Commission will give emergency food aid to North Korea

[The European Union (EU) has taken the plunge. Will others follow? In the following Press Release by the European Commission (EC) dated Brussels, 04 July 2011, Kristalina Georgieva, EU commissioner for international co-operation, humanitarian aid and crisis response, outlines the terms of a decision to supply $14.5 million in food aid to the World Food Programme (WFP). Special monitoring conditions have been negotiated, with priority given to feeding children on brink of starvation, mothers, hospital patients and elderly. –CanKor.]

A North Korean child (photo by EU)

The European Commission will provide emergency food aid to more than half a million people at risk of dying from serious malnutrition in North Korea, amid growing fears of a worsening hunger crisis.

The terms for delivering the food assistance are unprecedented, with strict monitoring procedures in place.

The objective of the €10 million aid package is to lift around 650,000 people, mainly in the Northern and Eastern provinces of the country, out of the hunger zone during the most difficult period of the worst year for food production in recent times. The next main cereal harvest is due in October.

Food assistance will reach children under five who have already been hospitalised with severe acute malnutrition. Children in residential care will also be fed, as well as pregnant and breastfeeding women, hospital patients and the elderly. Read the rest of this entry »

Six million vulnerable to starvation: UN

Logo of the UN World Food Programme in SVG format

World Food Programme

In response to a request for food assistance from the DPRK, the United Nations agencies WFP, FAO, and UNICEF organized a Rapid Food Security Assessment Mission (RFSA). WFP Country Office staff assessed the situation in several counties where WFP operates, including  five counties where WFP does not currently have operations.

UN staff was joined by experts from the US NGOs and donors. Team members represented a wide variety of skills and perspectives on food and nutrition security.

The Public Distribution System (PDS) will run out of food by the start of May, substantially increasing the  risk of malnutrition and other diseases, particularly in food deficit counties.  More than six million vulnerable people are in urgent need of international food assistance.

Currently, the PDS covers about half of the daily nutritional requirements per person. Those with relatives in rural areas fare better.

The UN estimates that a total of USD 82.4 million will be required to respond to key humanitarian priorities, including USD 7 million for agriculture and food security projects.

Canadian Contribution

Worthy of note is the Canadian bilateral food aid contribution in 2010 of 260 MT of soybeans.

For the full UN report, click here. (For contributions by country see pg. 11)

Other information from Global Information Early Warning System (GIEWS) on

Democratic People’s Republic of Korea :

As of Mar 2011, included in the list of “Countries Requiring External Assistance for Food”
Normalized Difference Dekadal Vegetation Index (SPOT-4)
Crop and Food Security Assessment Mission (CFSAM) Reports: 201020082004200320022002200120012000,20002000199919991998199819981997199719971996199619961995

Conversation #3

In which Erich Weingartner and Pak Kim Li discuss the 2008 New Year’s Joint Editorial, the DPRK’s annual statement of projected government policies. (First published in CanKor Report #301, 31 January 2008.)

Pak Kim Li (PKL):   I was merely joking, of course.

Erich Heinz Weingartner (EHW):  Joking? You?

PKL:  Yes, I admit it isn’t Korean style of humour, but it is humour that you taught me.

EHW:  I taught you to make jokes when I’m trying to conduct a serious interview?

PKL:  Yes, you know… April fool!

EHW:  This is January. Read the rest of this entry »

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