The United Nations has made a new appeal for food and medical aid for North Korea. Only about 57 percent of the needed aid has been pledged so far this year. Officials at the U.N.'s World Food Program (WFP)say roughly $221 million in aid is needed urgently to cover food and medical supply shortfalls in North Korea.

Rick Corsino, the WFP director for North Korea made a fresh appeal to donor countries for help on Thursday. He says that crops have improved in North Korea, but not enough. "There are still alarming rates of malnutrition despite the very significant gains that have been managed over the past for or five years." he says. He says the WFP will give priority to North Korean children, pregnant women and the elderly.

A recent report prepared by the WFP and the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization estimates that after anticipated donations North Korea will still need at least 400,000 tons of grain to meet minimal requirements in 2004. The United Nations reports that donor countries have pledged only 57 percent of the needed amount of aid this year.

The reclusive communist state faced famine in the mid-1990's - a crisis caused by natural disaster, domestic mismanagement and the end of support from the former Soviet Union.

Since then countries such as the United States, South Korea and China have stepped in to cover annual food shortfalls. However, many donors have suspended or limited aid to North Korea in recent months, in part because of concern over Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions.

"In the case of North Korea, unfortunately politics and humanitarian aid are not always kept apart and there are some countries who have no longer given to North Korea, namely Japan, and also the U.S. has cut back substantially," says aid worker Kathi Zellweger, with the Roman Catholic charity Caritas, who visited North Korea in September. She also says the lives of many North Koreans have been slightly improved by economic reforms, which allows citizens to grow and trade their own food.

"We at Caritas are worried that because of this reform process there might be people falling through a social safety net," says Ms. Zellweger. "Like any transition, economy reform brings gains and pain? I also saw that new initiatives have started and people have more drive because they have to fend for themselves."

Ms. Zellweger says that about 70,000 children are in immediate risk of death if they do not receive medical attention and food.