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UN Urges N. Korea to Tap Grain Reserves to Feed Starving Residents - 2004-02-09

The U.N. World Food Program says it has petitioned North Korea to draw from its grain reserves to help feed millions of its starving people. WFP officials in Beijing Monday renewed their pleas for more international food donations.

The World Food Program's Gerald Bourke says the agency has asked the North Korean government for a short-term loan from its food reserves to help feed millions of starving people through February. He says North Korean officials have not disclosed how much grain they have in storage.

"They have strategic stockpiles like most other countries," said Mr. Bourke. "They would be extremely limited, I would have thought. We are hoping for the best."

Mr. Bourke says the request was made more than a week ago and Pyongyang authorities have acknowledged the request, but given no answer.

Program officials say they believe the North Korean government is trying to stretch its stockpiled grain and has been using it to hand out rations to a segment of the population.

The U.N. agency says it had made the request while it seeks more donations to fill an immediate gap in aid. The World Food Program's representative in Pyongyang, Masood Hyder, says almost one-third of the nation's 23 million people are in a desperate state as the region goes through the dead of winter. "We have six and a half million people to feed in North Korea - children, pregnant and nursing mothers, the elderly - and no food," he said.

Mr. Hyder says nations have committed about 77,000 tons of grain, which is not due to arrive until next month. Once the donated grain comes, he says it will be enough to feed the country through June.

Despite heightened political tensions over North Korea's nuclear-weapons program, the United States is among the top donors, pledging 38,000 tons of grain that are due to arrive next month. South Korea, which is also at odds with Pyongyang over the North's nuclear ambitions, is another large donor.

North Korea has been suffering famine for years, following the collapse of its agricultural sector. Experts blame the situation on factors including the loss of subsidies from the former Soviet Union and mismanagement by its communist leaders.