The head of the United Nations World Food Program says that despite some improvements, North Korea still faces widespread food shortages. The country is likely to depend on international food aid for years to come.

The Executive Director of the World Food Program, Catherine Bertini, says that a severe spring drought has worsened North Korea's already precarious food situation. She notes that it will be years before the country can afford to feed itself.

Returning from a four-day visit to the reclusive country, Ms. Bertini told reporters in Beijing Tuesday that overall, the children she saw seemed healthier than in recent years, but that many still face great health risks.

She says that at one pediatric hospital near North Korea's capital, Pyongyang, almost all of the 140 children lacked food or clean water. "Most of the children were there because they had diarrhea. Some were malnourished. Many were very weak. All were there with their mothers. Most of these children were quite young. Many had had problems because their mothers did not have enough milk to feed them," Ms. Bertini said. Ms. Bertini says the pediatric hospital did not have enough medicine to treat its sick children. It had also run out of rice milk to feed patients because the authorities had not shipped supplies from factories.

Ms. Bertini says that North Korean authorities had promised to give U.N. program monitors better access to areas where they distributed food aid to make sure it arrives. Currently, the monitors must give advance notice to institutions before visiting. "We would like to go to places where there's not been as much advance notice, and certainly schools that are open five or six days a week are feeding children five or six days a week, and we should be able to go visit those schools periodically," Ms. Bertini said. But Ms. Bertini says that the government only permits World Food Program monitors to visit 167 of its 211 counties. The program is currently giving food aid to a third of North Korea's 23 million people.