BEIJING (AP)--North Korea has raised rice prices by up to 50 times and is boosting salaries, but aid workers cannot tell yet if the fledgling economic reforms will help relieve chronic hunger, a senior United Nations official said Aug. 5.
Kenzo Oshima, the UN undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, spent four days in the isolated North. But he said even after meeting Cabinet ministers, his information about the market-oriented changes was "still sketchy."
North Korea has released few details but told diplomats last month it was introducing elements of a market economy into one of the most tightly controlled communist systems. Higher food prices could channel more money to farmers, encouraging them to produce more.
"The aim appears to be to boost production," said Oshima, the highest-ranking aid official to visit the North this year.
However, he said at a news conference, "not enough time has passed for us to be able to evaluate the impact."
North Korea has depended on foreign aid to feed its people since revealing in the mid-1990s that its state-run farm system had collapsed.
The collapse followed decades of mismanagement and the loss of Soviet-era subsidies, and was worsened by flood and drought in some areas.
Oshima said prices in government stores have risen to match levels at small markets where North Korea lets farmers sell their own produce--another recent innovation. Rice prices are up 30 to 50 times, while corn costs 38 times more, he said.
Oshima said North Korean families from urban areas told him their salaries were to rise. He said he did not know how big the raises were or if it would be enough for the families to buy the food they need.
He said the North rejected his request to visit a private market.
Though North Korean leader Kim Jong Il visited China at least twice in the past two years to study its reforms, Oshima said North Korean officials gave no indication whether they were receiving Chinese advice.
"They did say they have sent missions to a number of countries to learn the systems employed in those countries," he said.
Despite any planned reforms, North Korea is still chronically short of food, UN officials said.
The World Food Program, a UN agency, has been feeding some six million North Koreans, though it says donations have fallen off recently.
The agency needs 130,000 more tons of food this year, said John Powell, its Asia regional director. He said that without more supplies, a program feeding some 1 million children and elderly people might stop in September.
Oshima said he noted the falloff in donations to North Korean officials as the aid agencies were trying to negotiate better access to the country.
He said the World Food Program now has access to all but 43 of the country's 203 counties. But he said it still wants to be able to inspect hospitals, aid stations and other facilities without facing obstacles such as having to apply for permission in advance.
"I have told the government that without these operational requirements, we may not be in a position to convince donors to continue to meet the level of support needed," Oshima said.