Published: May 12 2005 18:48 | Last updated: May 12 2005 18:48
Humanitarian aidThe World Food Programme, the United Nations agency that is keeping millions of North Koreans alive with food aid, on Thursday dismissed western speculation of mounting internal opposition to the communist government.
Richard Ragan, based in Pyonyang with WFP, the west’s biggest presence in the communist autarky, told a Washington conference that he had seen no evidence that mounting economic and outside pressure were loosening the grip on power of North Korea’s rulers.
“My sense is that the government is firmly in control of the situation,” he said, giving a rare insight into conditions inside the country. Recent reports that North Koreans had defaced public portraits of Kim Jong-il, the nation’s leader, were “patently absurd”, he said.
Mr Ragan’s assessment is unlikely to be welcomed by hardliners in the Bush administration. Hawks in Washington have argued against holding negotiations with North Korea over its nuclear arsenal. They argue that only a change of regime and not the weak accord reached with the Clinton administration in 1994 is likely to lead to disarmament.
The Bush administration reaffirmed on Thursday that its food aid to North Korea was not conditional on resolving the nuclear stand-off. The US, which with Japan and China, is the North’s main donor of food, has not announced aid so far for 2005, however.
The WFP maintains the largest presence of any international organisation in North Korea with five regional offices.
The security establishment within the regime tried to impose tighter controls on the WFP and non-government organisations last September but international pressure from key donors forced Pyongyang to rethink its position, Mr Ragan said.
Mr Ragan, a US citizen, described how private markets had opened across the country, not just in Pyongyang, since the government publicly acknowledged their existence in 2002.
Changes had also led to decentralisation, with provincial officials more amenable to the WFP than the central government.
But relaxation of price controls had led to 100 per cent inflation and severe hardships for civil servants and industrial workers whose wages have remained static. He gave the example of a retired teacher on a pension of 800 to 1,200 won a month, less than $1 at the unofficial exchange rate. One kilogramme of rice costs 600 won.
The UN agency fed 6.5m people last year in North Korea, nearly one-third of the population, as the isolated state sought to recover from the famine of the late 1990s which killed an estimated 2m to 3m people. Without new contributions, the WFP will only be able to feed 3m people this summer.
Japan, the main donor last year, has suspended its contribution because of a dispute over Japanese citizens kidnapped by North Korea.
Copyright The Financial Times