The U.N.'s World Food Program says North Korea has agreed to let the agency start distributing food in the country again after ordering it to halt operations late last year.
The World Food Program Director for Asia, Tony Banbury, says he signed a new agreement with North Korea on Wednesday, during a brief visit to Pyongyang.
"The World Food Program will be staying in the D.P.R.K.," he said. "We will continue a food aid program there, assisting approximately 1.9 million very needy, food-insecure families."
In December, the government of Kim Jong Il ordered the WFP to stop its operations, saying it no longer needed outside assistance due a good harvest and increased aid from South Korea. In addition, Pyongyang had announced the revival of its long-defunct public distribution system, which observers say gave the Stalinist government fuller control over how food was distributed.
Last week the New York-based group, Human Rights Watch, said the policy is pushing the country into another food crisis. The group cited witnesses in North Korea as saying some families have not received any food rations since as far back as November.
Banbury, who made the announcement for the WFP here in Beijing Thursday, said the Kim government acknowledges that food security "remains a significant challenge." He says it is not clear how many people have not received their government rations or for how long.
"We don't know what's been happening since December, in these intervening months. We hear anecdotal reports, but we don't have firsthand evidence. In fact, that's one of the reasons why it's so important for WFP to start this operation again and get out into the field to try and do a better assessment of what is happening," said Banbury. "If people are not getting their rations, and if those rations are their primary source of food, then they're obviously going to be facing some real difficulties. It's our expectation that that's probably happening in some cases."
Banbury says North Korea has allowed only ten foreign staffers to resume work in the country, compared to 32 before last December.
The reclusive Communist state has suffered famines and food shortages since the early 1990s when its economy collapsed due to mismanagement, the loss of Soviet subsidies, and - to a lesser degree - weather disasters.