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UN Says North Korea Food Crisis Worsening

The U.N. World Food Program says North Korea is facing its worst food shortage in nearly a decade. The agency says in the next year North Korea needs more than $500 million for food aid or it will risk famine. Daniel Schearf reports from Beijing.

The World Food Program says bad weather, high food prices and fewer donations from neighbors have dangerously reduced North Korea's food supplies.

In the past year North Korean farms suffered devastating floods and grain prices increased four times.

Also, South Korea has also not given as much aid to the North this year because relations between the two governments have chilled.

The WFP says this year North Korea will be more than 1.5 million tons short of the food it needs.

Tony Banbury, the WFP's regional director for Asia, just finished a weeklong tour of North Korea, where he says malnourishment is widespread.

"Now more than half of the households in the country are surviving on just two meals a day at best," said Banbury. "And, there is a significantly increased reliance for foraging for wild foods as a coping mechanism."

Banbury says the food crisis is probably the worst since the late 1990s when an estimated million North Koreans died of hunger.

He says food exports from China, a traditional supplier, dropped by half in the past few years.

China limited food exports to help battle rising inflation at home and ensure its own supply.

Anthea Webb, the WFP's China director, says the agency is urging Chinese officials to allow the export of 50,000 tons for food to North Korea and Burma.

"We understand the priority is to take care of the Chinese population first. But, a modest request," said Webb. "We are hoping, very hopeful, for a positive answer. And, it is clear that the need is more urgent than ever now."

The WFP says it needs $503 million to maintain adequate operations in North Korea until November 2009 and is asking donors for $60 million of it now.

The food is mainly for children, the elderly, and mothers.

The North Korean government has in the past been suspected of diverting food aid to its powerful military.

The WFP says that is no longer a concern as Pyongyang in June granted it unprecedented oversight of aid operations.

The WFP feeds more people in North Korea than in any other country. More than six million North Koreans, one quarter of the population, depend on the donations.

The U.S. government is one of the biggest donors and has pledged 400,000 tons of food to help with the crisis.