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World Food Program: North Korea in Danger of Famine

A United Nations expert said a shortfall in donations is forcing hungry North Koreans to scrounge for seaweed and grasses to eat. The U.N. warns that the country could fall back into famine if no new aid is received.

In May, the U.N.'s World Food Program suspended cereal distribution to almost 700,000 secondary school children, as well as half a million elderly people, caregivers and teachers. It also cut back on food distribution projects to 500,000 North Korean workers.

Gerald Bourke, a WFP spokesman in Beijing, just visited North Korea. He told reporters Thursday that people cut off from aid are scrambling to stave off hunger. "They're going up into the mountains in search of edible grasses. They're on the beaches collecting seaweed. Teachers say attendance at school is down because children are out collecting wild foods. Teachers themselves and so-called caregivers at kindergartens, nurseries and the like are having to take time off from work for the same reason," Mr. Bourke said.

Mr. Bourke said a new contribution from the United States of 100,000 metric tons of wheat, rice and dairy products will help relieve North Korea's food crisis. But he said the WFP still needs new donations before August to ensure that distribution can resume for those cut off from aid.

"We still need quite a bit more by way of contributions if we're to be able to assist all the people we've targeted until the end of the year," Mr. Bourke said.

The WFP feeds 6.4 million North Koreans considered most vulnerable. They include children in orphanages and kindergartens, the elderly, and pregnant and nursing women.

Six countries have contributed to the WFP's North Korea program this year: the United States, South Korea, Germany, Australia, Cuba and Finland. Japan, however, has yet to pledge food aid this year. Mr. Bourke said Japan was North Korea's largest donor last year, contributing more than half of all WFP food to the communist state.

"Tokyo is delaying new pledges to review its ties with Pyongyang. Tokyo accuses Pyongyang of kidnapping Japanese citizens. Japan is also salvaging a suspected North Korean ship, sunk after a shootout with the Japanese coast guard last year," Mr. Bourke said.

Aid agencies said hundreds of thousands of North Koreans have died of disease and malnutrition since the mid-1990s. According to Pyongyang, almost half of North Korean children under five are chronically malnourished. A further four million school children are severely underfed, and the maternal death rate is rising.