UN agencies say the East Asian country has had the worst harvest in a decade.
North Korea has told the United Nations to cut the number of international staff it deploys to Pyongyang, saying the organisation’s programmes have failed “due to the politicisation of UN assistance by hostile forces,” according to a letter seen by Reuters on Wednesday.
North Korea wants the number of international staff with the UN Development Programme cut from six to one or two, the World Health Organization from six to four and the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) to cut its 13 staff by one or two.
“UN supported programmes failed to bring the results as desired due to the politicisation of UN assistance by hostile forces,” Kim Chang Min, secretary-general for North Korea’s National Coordinating Committee for the United Nations, wrote to the top UN official posted in the country.
In the letter dated August 21, Kim gave a deadline of the end of the year for the agencies to make the cuts.
The UN estimates 10.3 million people – almost half the country’s population – are in need and some 41 percent of North Koreans are undernourished, while Pyongyang said in February it was facing a food shortfall this year and had to halve rations, blaming drought, floods and sanctions.
Kim said the number of international staff with the World Food Programme should also 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 UN aid officials could instead “visit as and when required.”
The UN did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
“Historically there’s been a critical lack of international expertise and oversight and capacity to monitor the use of the assistance that is provided,” said a UN diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“We’re deeply surprised by this turn of events in part because this is when the needs have grown and the UN has been trying to mobilise support to scale up assistance in country,” the diplomat said.
The move comes amid stalled talks between the US and North Korea aimed at dismantling Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programmes.
The UN Security Council has tightened sanctions on North Korea since 2006 in a bid to choke funding for those programmes.
“The North Korean government’s decisions are only hurting the North Korean people,” said a second UN diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“This is coming at a time where both Russia and China are pushing a false narrative that sanctions are causing the humanitarian problems in North Korea and the only way to solve that is to give North Korea sanctions relief,” the diplomat said.
Russia’s UN ambassador, Vassily Nebenzia, told reporters on Tuesday that unilateral sanctions imposed on North Korea by other countries and some strict interpretations of UN sanctions were hindering humanitarian work.
“The population of North Korea should not suffer under those sanctions that have been imposed illegitimately,” he said.