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North Korea Faces Starvation, says Aid Group Caritas - 2003-05-27

A top international aid agency says North Korea is in a precarious situation, with starvation looming unless food supplies continue. The comments come the same day the South Korean government says it will slow down food shipments to the North if relations with Pyongyang worsen over its nuclear programs.

International aid agency Caritas is appealing for more than $2.5 million to help get food and medical aid to North Korea.

Kathi Zellweger coordinates the Caritas' operations in North Korea from her office in Hong Kong. Since 1995, she has made more than 40 trips to the North, most recently in April. In a speech Tuesday, she warned that the communist country is in desperate need of help. " Life for the ordinary North Korean is a grim struggle for survival," she said. "Food for survival and growth is still very much needed. ... Right now, the rations are down to 250 or 270 grams, and that is less than 1,000 calories per day."

North Korea's economy has been collapsing for more than a decade. The situation worsened in the mid-1990s when floods and drought caused a famine. Foreign aid since then has improved the situation, but Ms. Zellweger said more help is needed.

"It would not take long for North Korea to slip back into hunger and famine," said Ms. Zellweger. "Caritas feels that the North Korean people need and deserve assistance, and that humanitarian aid and politics should be kept apart."

Ms. Zellweger says Caritas, a Roman Catholic charity based in Rome, provides food to the North's most vulnerable citizens: children and pregnant women. The process, she says, has slowly led to greater openness and cooperation from the North Korean government and the people.

Aid programs, however, have faced difficulties in the last seven months as North Korea has faced off with the international community over its nuclear ambitions.

Ms. Zellweger says the tensions have made some donors reluctant to contribute to North Korea. She says a U.S.-led decision to cut off fuel donations to Pyongyang has hampered efforts to increase food production.

On Tuesday, the South Korean government said it would slow down aid shipments if Pyongyang escalates the nuclear dispute.

South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun spoke with U.S. President George W. Bush late Monday. He reiterated that Seoul will work closely with the United States and Japan to solve the nuclear dispute diplomatically.

Washington has made clear that the only acceptable solution is for North Korea to keep its numerous commitments to be nuclear free.