U.N. aid agency warns of N. Korea food crisis


BEIJING - The World Food Program, saying it has nearly run out of rations for North Korea, warned yesterday of an intensifying crisis. Because of a shortage of food from donor nations, only 100,000 of the 6.5 million vulnerable children, pregnant women and elderly people it usually feeds in North Korea are receiving aid from the United Nations agency.

This represents the most serious shortfall in aid since North Korea began its less-than-complete cooperation with international organizations in the 1990s, and comes at a time when the bellicose and secretive regime in Pyongyang is threatening to develop nuclear weapons.

North Korea has agreed to meet with the United States and four other nations in Beijing on Feb. 25 for a second round of six-party talks designed to coax Pyongyang into abandoning its nuclear ambitions in exchange for aid and security guarantees.

In the meantime, the World Food Program predicted "a real increase in suffering" for North Koreans as pregnant women go hungry, children in state-run day-care centers are forced to skip one meal a day and the elderly get nothing to eat beyond the meager government rations for all citizens.

"Many of those we cannot help are only consuming two-thirds of the calories they need," Masood Hyder, the World Food Program representative for North Korea said in a statement released in Beijing. "Unless they get help very soon, the damage could be irreparable."

Hyder pleaded for more international support, but he acknowledged that even if governments overcame their wariness of dealing with Pyongyang, it would be a major logistical challenge to deliver food quickly to North Korea.

At this point, North Koreans will probably go hungry until the end of March, when the next scheduled delivery of aid arrives. Typically, it takes three months to arrange the purchase, shipping and delivery of food.

Hyder said the World Food Program had proposed borrowing grain from North Korean government stocks that must last until the summer harvest comes in. The agency has done smaller-scale borrowing in the past, but this time has asked to use 20,000 tons of North Korean grain to be replaced once donations arrive from overseas.

Hyder, a diplomat who made the plea for help without any public support from the North Korean government, declined to criticize Pyongyang directly for allowing its people to go hungry. But he made it clear when speaking of the "unfavorable political context" surrounding the famine that North Korea's behavior was to blame.

Aid-giving countries have tried to avoid using the withholding of food aid as a weapon to punish the government, Hyder said, but food-related donations have flagged because of the mistrust most of the world feels toward North Korea.

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