Page last updated at 08:07 GMT, Monday, 30 June 2008 09:07 UK

UN strikes food deal with N Korea

North Korean farmers at work near the demilitarized zone on 30 April 2008
Severe flooding last year has raised fears of famine in North Korea

The UN World Food Programme says it has reached an agreement to greatly expand its work in North Korea, as a shipment of US food aid arrived in the country.

The deal means that the agency will be able to feed five million people in the hunger-hit state, WFP said.

Fifty more international monitors will oversee aid distribution and they will be given unprecedented access to rural areas, it said.

The deal comes amid warnings North Korea could be facing famine.

It has been reliant on international food aid for years and problems were compounded when serious floods last year devastated swathes of cropland.

An estimated one million people starved to death in North Korea in the late 1990s.

'Dramatically expand'

The US announced in May that it would send half a million tonnes of aid to North Korea to be distributed by WFP.

But, says the BBC's John Sudworth in the South Korean capital, Seoul, that was the easy bit.

South Korean workers load fertilizer onto a ship in June 2006

For the past few weeks, the UN has been in tough negotiations with the North Korean government, trying to secure full access for its staff to ensure that the food aid goes to those who need it most.

The deal, signed on Friday, will allow the largest WFP presence ever inside North Korea, which places severe restrictions on access to foreigners, our correspondent adds.

Food distribution will be expanded from the current 50 counties to 128 counties - including parts of the country to which aid agencies have not had access in the past.

Aid will now reach five million people, instead of the current 1.2 million.

Tony Banbury, WFP's Asia regional director, said that the agency would be able to "dramatically expand" its aid operation.

"With this agreement, WFP will be in a position to reach more hungry people and put an expanded and more comprehensive monitoring system in place," he said.

After the deal was agreed, a US ship carrying aid arrived in the port of Nampo on Sunday.

Half of its cargo of wheat will be unloaded there and the rest split between two other eastern ports, WFP said.

The US food aid is not directly linked to an international deal aimed at ending North Korea's nuclear programme.

But the delivery comes amid movement in the long-stalled negotiations.

Last week, Pyongyang produced an overdue statement of its nuclear activities. In response, the US initiated steps to remove North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism.

Reports from the region suggest that six-nation talks aimed at moving the deal forward could now resume next month.

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