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Evidence Indicates North Korean Food Situation May be Worsening

Even as millions of Asian families are celebrating this week's Lunar New Year holiday with feasts, North Korea remains in the middle of an acute food crisis. And there are signs the country's dependency on outside aid may be growing even stronger.

Every year since 1999, South Korea has supplied its impoverished rival with 300,000 metric tons of fertilizer. But this year, North Korea has asked for an unprecedented 500,000 tons.

Analysts say the request is the latest sign that the North is still unable to produce enough food and that its dependence on donors is increasing at a time when it shows little sign of resolving major differences with the outside world. For a decade, North Korea has needed foreign aid to feed its people, as natural disaster and years of economic mismanagement have eroded crop production.

South Korean officials have said they will consider the request, but only after North Korea returns to six-nation talks aimed at ending Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program.

In a further sign of food shortages, the United Nations World Food Program says North Korea recently cut daily food rations to 250 grams of rice or cereal per person, per day. Brenda Barton, a spokeswoman at WFP headquarters in Rome, says that is insufficient.

"That is half of what people need to survive on a day-to-day basis," she said.

Ms. Barton says the WFP aims to supplement those rations for 6.5 million North Koreans, more than a quarter of the population. To that end, it appealed last month for 500,000 tons of aid. But many people will still go hungry.

"We don't feed all the people in the country, and therefore there will be people that are getting 50 grams less than what they're normally getting," she said. "And for them, that can really be hardship."

Humanitarian groups say a major difficulty they face is in ensuring that food aid reaches the neediest civilians rather than being diverted to North Korea's armed forces or the ruling elite.

The WFP says it is satisfied that most of its aid reaches those for whom it is intended: children, pregnant women and the elderly.

But Gerry Bourke, a WFP spokesman in Beijing, says Pyongyang has reduced the number of times that WFP monitors can visit North Korea to make sure aid goes only to those who most need it.

"One of its concerns was the level of monitoring and the frequency of monitoring - and the number of international staff involved in monitoring activities," he said.

The U.N. agency has a "no access, no food" policy and WFP officials say they have been forced to stop food distribution in areas they cannot visit. There is evidence that those the agency cannot now reach are suffering.

Christian activist Tim Peters runs a charity in Seoul that delivers food aid to North Koreans. He says that North Korean refugees told him in China late last year the shortages are getting worse.

"The refugees told us that for the most part they have not seen food aid within the last four or five years," he said.

Pyongyang's attempts to fix the situation appear to have backfired. North Korea has introduced limited market reforms and ended price controls in the past few years, in a bid to boost food production after years of near-famine conditions. But most people cannot afford the higher prices.

The food crisis was exacerbated when Japan - a major donor - suspended most aid shipments in December. Japan acted in response to what it considers North Korea's failure to fully account for the fate of Japanese nationals Pyongyang admits abducting in the 1970s and 1980s.

Tokyo, which has threatened wider economic sanctions over the abduction issue, also wants North Korea to return to the nuclear talks with China, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the United States soon.

Japan, the United States and other countries say they are willing to provide aid to North Korea once it has verifiably ended its nuclear weapons program.

In the meantime, the World Food Program's Brenda Barton says North Korean civilians will continue to suffer.

"The situation day by day for the population is still very tenuous. People often don't know where their next meal is coming from," she said.

Pyongyang has asked the international community for help in feeding its people for more than a decade - after a famine that is believed to have killed more than a million North Koreans. Regional experts say the country's economy is so weakened it can no longer produce basic sustenance for the population, and that its need for aid will continue for years.