Aid agencies ordered to halt food handouts
Clifford Coonan in Beijing
North Korea has ordered aid agencies, including the UN's World Food Programme and non-governmental organisations, to stop providing emergency food aid and wants foreign NGO workers out by the end of the year.
Pyongyang wants their work continued by North Korean staff - a move aid workers fear could set back efforts to help starving North Koreans by 10 years.
It also wants aid agencies to switch to providing longer-term development aid instead of emergency food aid, a move likely to provoke a storm of controversy over the role of foreign aid organisations in the secretive Stalinist enclave.
'There's always a chance we'll have to go, but I'm optimistic we won't have to close down,' said Richard Ragan, the UN programme's country manager in North Korea.
Shifting from emergency relief to development aid is politically explosive. Donors such as the United States and Japan have committed to emergency food aid in North Korea, but baulk at development assistance as they fear it might help to prop up Kim Jong-il's rule, which US President George W. Bush describes as a 'rogue regime'.
Aid experts said increasingly warm bilateral relations between South and North Korea were the reason for the ultimatum.
While Seoul gives 100,000 tonnes of rice to North Korea via the UN programme every year, it also makes its own separate contributions, which come without strings attached, such as a need for monitoring.
The North Koreans dislike foreign workers running around the country and want more control, the aid sources said.
Aid workers in Pyongyang spoke of their shock at the ultimatum. There have been vague threats to kick the NGOs out before, but the fact that this ultimatum contains a firm date makes the NGOs believe this time it is for real.
There are 12 non-UN NGOs in North Korea, including Save the Children, Handicap International and Premiere Urgence. 'It's not possible for us to hand over our operations to national staff. We remain hopeful the decision will change once they realise the donors won't fund without an international presence,' said Padraig O'Rourke, manager for Concern, an Irish aid organisation.
Talks aimed at dismantling North Korea's nuclear programmes are dragging on as delegates struggle to break an impasse between Pyongyang and Washington over the North's demand for the right to atomic energy. The main US envoy said he planned to head home today regardless of the outcome. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill praised the latest compromise proposal by the Chinese hosts as a 'good draft'.