Beijing (AsiaNews/Agencies) North Korea has ordered international aid agencies, including the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), to end their food shipments and pull out their staff by the end of the year.
Pyongyang wants North Korean staff to replace foreign aid workers in distributing international aid, a move the latter fear could set efforts to help starving North Koreans back by 10 years.
WFP's Country Director for North Korea Richard Ragan said his agency's operation could be slimmed down, even raising the possibility the WFP might be forced out of the country. But he said he doubted that would be the case.
North Korea wants the WFP to shift from emergency assistance to the promotion of longer-term food security. This has raised a storm over the place of foreign humanitarian agencies.
Donors such as the US and Japan have committed to emergency food relief in North Korea, but baulk at development aid as they fear it might help to prop up Kim Jong-il's rule in what US President Bush has called a "rogue state".
Aid experts say increasingly warm bilateral relations between South and North Korea are part of the reason for the ultimatum.
Seoul ships some 100,000 tonnes of rice to the North under the WFP but could do the same without international supervision required by UN rules.
The same experts point out that North Korea is not very keen to having foreign aid workers moving around the country and wants to impose "greater controls".
Foreign agencies are upset about the prospect of leaving. Veiled threats had been made before but this time the setting of a deadline may mean that the writing is on the wall.
Currently, there are 12 non UN foreign agencies operating in North Korea such as 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 Mr O'Rourke, country manager for Irish NGO Concern.