Five humanitarian groups that distribute U.S. aid in North Korea say they are "saddened" by the reclusive country's decision this past week to expel them by the end of the month but remain committed to assisting the country's people.
"Until the end of the month, we will work with our North Korean partners to ensure a proper closeout," stated the five organizations Friday in a joint statement.
"We remain committed to helping the people of the DPRK to overcome hunger and improve their lives," they added, referring to North Korea by its official name – the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK).
A U.S. State Department spokesman had confirmed earlier this week that North Korea refused to accept future U.S. food aid and asked Mercy Corps, World Vision, Samaritan's Purse, Global Resource Services and Christian Friends of Korea to leave by the end of March.
"We're obviously disappointed," State Department spokesman Robert Woods told reporters on Tuesday. "Clearly, this is food assistance that the North Korean people need. That's why we're concerned. ... The food situation in North Korea is not a good one."
The five humanitarian groups, collectively referred to as the NGO Partners, also expressed their concern, pointing out that the USAID-supported food assistance program that they've been operating since June 2008 resulted from the "tremendous" humanitarian need in North Korea.
"We are saddened by this decision, but are very proud of what the program has accomplished," the group of five reported.
"Working closely with our North Korean partners, we have ensured that food reached almost one million vulnerable children, pregnant and nursing mothers, and the elderly," added the organizations, each of which have worked in North Korea for over a decade.
The NGO Food Assistance program was part of a larger 500,000-metric-ton initiative supported by USAID, the United States' humanitarian agency. Of the 500,000 metric tons, the World Food Program received 400,000 to distribute while the NGO Partners received 100,000. To date, the NGOs have reportedly brought over 71,000 metric tons of food in the first ten months of the program, benefiting more than 900,000 people in the two northwestern provinces of Chagang and North Pyongan. Originally, the plan was for NGO Partners to distribute the entire 100,000 metric tons over twelve months.
Despite this week's disappointing news, the NGO Partners said they will continue to work to address the needs of North Korea's people, as individual agencies and in cooperative partnerships.
"We hope the success of this program will serve as a model for the future," they added.
As one of the poorest countries in the world, North Korea is home to more than 23 million people – about 9 million of which are in need of urgent food assistance, according to the World Food Program.
In addition to a food shortage problem, the reclusive communist country also is known for having arguably the worst human rights record in the world.
On Monday, U.N. human rights investigator Vitit Muntarbhorn told the U.N. Human Rights Council that life in North Korea is "dire and desperate," and the prisons there are like "death traps."
"The abhorrent prison conditions, including lack of food, poor hygiene, freezing conditions in winter time, forced labor and corporal punishment, result in a myriad of abuses and deprivations," said Muntarbhorn, according to The Associated Press.
"Although torture is prohibited by law, it is extensively practiced," the Thai professor of law added.
North Korea is currently ruled by de facto leader Kim Jong Il, the son of the previous leader, Kim Il Sung, who died in 1994. The totalitarian nation has been on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism since 1988 but was removed from the blacklist late last year in exchange for its vow to continue its denuclearization process and allow international nuclear inspections.
North Korea is now reportedly preparing for what many believe will be a long-range missile test in early April.
Christian Post reporter Ethan Cole in Washington contributed to this article.