The only American citizen based permanently in North Korea - a man responsible for coordinating food distribution to more than one quarter of the people in this impoverished country - may soon be heading home to Laredo, Texas.
Richard Ragan, who has served as in-country director of the World Food Program (WFP) for the past two years, was told in late August by the North Korean regime to halt all his program's food shipments here by the end of the year.
"They've been hinting for the past year they wanted us out," Mr. Ragan says. "They don't like our monitoring," he adds, alluding to the WFP's persistent, if often unsuccessful, efforts at making sure the food got to the neediest, rather than to the North's 1.1 million troops or to a small circle of party and government officials.
While still negotiating with Pyongyang, Ragan is rapidly shutting down 19 factories that process raw food into noodles and biscuits for the most vulnerable citizens.
Now the question is whether North Korea will be able to ship enough food through its dilapidated distribution system to make up for the loss of food aid from the WFP, which has distributed some 4 million tons of food since 1995. The statistics present a picture that shows how difficult it is to close the gap, even with shipments from China and South Korea and an improving harvest.
North Korea's harvest is expected to rise this year by at most ten percent from last year's 4.2 million tons - a level that still falls far short of the minimum of 6 million tons the country needs. The WFP this year has shipped in about 320,000 tons while anxiously awaiting shipment of a final 25,000 tons of rice from the US. North Korea, meanwhile, counts on direct government-to-government donations from South Korea, which ships in 500,000 tons, and China, which provides several hundred thousand tons, mostly maize.
No one doubts the country has emerged from the depths of the famine that wiped out two million people in the mid-to-late 1990s, but food remains scarce, and this year's harvest may well be a one-time phenomenon.
"North Korea is likely to be a chronically food-insecure country until one of two things happens," says Ragan. "It has to buy enough food on the international market" or rely on donations. "It is unlikely that they will ever produce enough food without massive overhauling of the economy."
Somehow the country has to get a million tons of rice a year from China and South Korea - and then hope for better harvests and donations from elsewhere to fill the food gap. The average citizen, Ragan believes, now exists on 300 to 350 grams of rice a day - more than the 200 grams that people were receiving earlier in the year but still barely enough.
Getting food to the people who need it most will be another challenge, particularly with the loss of the WFP. Ragan says that the public distribution system here "was limping" well before a decision this month to stop a two-year experiment in private grain sales. The government, moreover, has axed an annual distribution survey that the WFP had been conducting, leaving Ragan and others even less certain than they were a year ago about how much food is getting to those most in need.
"We've never had to close such a large program so fast," says Ragan. "You can't turn them around so easily. You have to plan a year in advance. We still have food coming at the end of November. We have to move it fast."
While grappling with the immediate problem of switching off the food program, Ragan says the government has also told small nongovernmental organizations to pull out their foreign staffs or shut down their programs. With a slightly sardonic grin, he says, "Maybe the fact we've been asked to leave is an indication we've been pretty successful" in helping to rescue North Korea from a famine in the years since the WFP set up shop here in 1995.
Ragan, and other foreign observers who spoke off the record, are dismayed to see North Korea clamping down on foreign influence while retreating from reform at a time when the North is still in desperate need. These moves were all the more shocking as North Korea appeared to be moving toward international engagement when it signed on to a "statement of principles" at six-party talks in Beijing over its nuclear program.
Headline-grabbing dialogue, however, may bear little relationship to the pervasive sense of high-level insecurity that North Korean officials convey as they face a small foreign community of at most 300 foreign diplomats and aid-givers.
A North Korea diplomat, talking to a visiting delegation of European diplomats and experts, charges the inspections demanded by the WFP were intrusive and the WFP was "not welcome" in missions that took it to far corners of the country. Though some areas were totally off-limits, all missions needed advance approval, and North Korean minders had to accompany the inspectors. "I would say nothing has changed," says Andrei Lankov, a scholar from Russia who lived here in the 1980s, studied in Australia and is teaching in Seoul while on leave from Australian National University.
"The system is not in revision," he goes on, visiting here for the first time in 20 years. "Reforms are impossible. They cannot change."
However, Ragan holds out some hope that he can reach an agreement with the government here that would convert the WFP operation into a modest plan for development aid. This scheme, he hopes, might enable the food processing plants to reopen.