A United Nations envoy is heading to North Korea to assess the impoverished country's food supply. The trip comes as diplomats from several countries seek to cool tensions over Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions.
U.N. officials said Maurice Strong, a special advisor to U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, is "willing to listen to whatever the North Koreans bring up."
His visit comes amid diplomatic efforts to ease a growing international stalemate over North Korea's ambitions to build nuclear weapons.
Mr. Strong's main mission, however, is to assess North Korea's food supply and what it needs to avert famine. He may, however, discuss the weapons issue if North Korean leaders bring it up.
During a stop in Beijing, Mr. Strong told reporters that hunger will soon become a serious problem in North Korea. "There could be a significant crisis in March and April and we are seeking to consult with our DPRK friends on how we might avoid such a situation," Mr. Strong said, referring to North Korea by its formal name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
North Koreans have been suffering from food shortages for years, caused by drought, floods and mismanagement. Millions of North Koreans have been getting food through the United Nations and other aid agencies.
The international community has been focused on Pyongyang since October when Washington said North Korea had broken international agreements with a secret program to build nuclear weapons.
Tensions on the Korean Peninsula have mounted in recent weeks as Pyongyang moved to restart nuclear facilities frozen under an agreement with the United States, expelled U.N. nuclear monitors, and hinted it might resume testing ballistic missiles.
The top U.S. diplomat for Asia, James Kelly, arrives in Beijing late Tuesday. Mr. Kelly is expected to press Chinese officials to help persuade North Korea to give up its efforts to develop nuclear weapons.