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World Food Program Warns North Korea Food Stocks Depleted, Crisis Looms

Officials from the U.N. World Food Program are warning that, if North Korea does not receive donations urgently, the country may face hunger problems as serious as those of the mid-1990's.

Anthony Banbury, Asia director for the World Food Program, or WFP, told reporters Friday, North Korea's food crisis is getting worse by the day.

"WFP now has very limited food available for further distribution in North Korea, and no additional food on the way," he said.

The World Food Program is the largest humanitarian aid organization in North Korea. It aims to feed the 6.5 million neediest of North Korea's population of more than 23 million, concentrating especially on children, pregnant women and the elderly.

However, Mr. Banbury says, by August, WFP will be forced to slash programs to a point where it will be able to feed only 1.5 million people.

Earlier this year, the North Korean government reduced public rations to its neediest citizens to what Mr. Banbury calls a "starvation ration" of 250 grams per person, per day. Now, he says, that ration could be reduced even more.

"There are further indications from the government to the World Food Program that this ration may be cut in June or July down to 200 grams [per person] per day," he said.

The World Health Organization has determined that a person needs a minimum of 500 grams a day to survive.

While major WFP donors, such as the United States, do not explicitly link food aid with politics, Mr. Banbury suggests leadership decisions in Pyongyang are at least indirectly responsible for a shortfall in donations to North Korea.

"In my conversation with all our major donors, one consistent theme emerges, and that is great frustration at the policies of the North's government," he said.

South Korea, a major donor to North Korea, last week granted less than half of Pyongyang's request for 500,000 tons of fertilizer. Seoul said it did not grant the full amount because the North refused to end its boycott of multinational talks about its nuclear weapons programs.

South Korea plans to resume efforts to bring North Korea back to the bargaining table at ministerial level talks next month. WFP says June, July and August are when food is at its most scarce in North Korea, a fact that could increase pressure on Pyongyang to negotiate.

Mr. Banbury said the U.N. agency has stepped up monitoring of food distribution to North Korea, and there is no evidence that any of the food is going to its military forces. In the past, the United States and other donors have expressed concern that aid is being diverted to North Korea's military.