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United Nations Warns of North Korean Food Crisis

The United Nations World Food Program says urgent action is needed to prevent what it calls a "serious tragedy" because of food shortages in North Korea. A bad harvest and soaring world food prices may be creating one of the leanest years in the North since a period of mass starvation in the mid-1990's. VOA's Kurt Achin reports from Seoul.

The United Nation's World Food Program warned Wednesday "time is running out" to avert a "humanitarian food crisis." Jean-Pierre de Margerie is the WFP's representative in Pyongyang.

"We have a bit of a 'perfect storm' here, because we have all these factors lining up," he said.

The main factors are a dramatic spike in world food prices and the consequences of last year's severe North Korean flooding on harvests. De Margerie says prices for basic foods, like corn and grain, have at least doubled since last year.

North Korea has experienced food shortages because of decades of self-imposed economic isolation, culminating in the mid-1990's, when hundreds of thousands of North Koreans are estimated to have died of starvation. The WFP says North Korea was able to meet about 80 percent of its basic survival food requirements, last year. De Margerie says, this year, the North will probably only produce about 60 percent of its basic needs.

He says there are signs of severe strain on the North's Public Distribution System, or PDS - the government office responsible for providing food to citizens.

"Officials - government officials at the local, county, and provincial level, are telling us - maybe for the first time - that they're experiencing difficulties in ensuring that PDS dependents are receiving their rations," de Margerie said. "And, they're telling us that there is a chance that they will have have to suspend PDS rations in the future. We've never heard this before."

The WFP is intensifying talks with donor nations who, according to de Margerie, are "asking a lot of questions" about North Korea's delays in nuclear weapons negotiations and recent bellicose rhetoric to the South.

Last month, Pyongyang publicly threatened to turn South Korea "into ashes." The North has cut off most official contacts with the South, in disapproval over conservative President Lee Myung-bak's North Korea policies. The Lee administration says aid and economic cooperation with the South depends on the North fulfilling promises on nuclear disarmament.

Since Mr. Lee's February inauguration, the North has gone without the massive transfers of South Korean rice and fertilizer it had received for years under other administrations. De Margerie says, unless the North receives fertilizer soon, it may have to prepare for another bad harvest in the near future.

"The thing is, is that we're running out of time," he said. "You know, this fertilizer needs to be applied on the field before the end of May. So, it's unlikely that they'll be able to meet this critical deadline."

The United States is preparing a donation of half a million tons of grain to North Korea this month, via the World Food Program.