Third of N Koreans face starvation

The World Food Programme launched the biggest emergency operation in its 35-year history yesterday, appealing for more than $378m (pounds 236m) to feed nearly one third of North Korea's population and avert a "humanitarian catastrophe".

"The international community has been very generous in the last year and we're calling on them to be even more generous to prevent the present food shortage from developing into a famine situation," said Catherine Bertini, executive director of the United Nations agency.

North Korea suffered extensive flooding in 1995 and 1996 which crippled agricultural production, and the country was hit by severe drought in the summer of 1997. Low rainfall reduced the expected maize harvest last year by more than half, and tidal waves from Typhoon Winnie in August damaged the rice crop, which fell far short of domestic needs.

No figures on famine deaths are available, but Ms Bertini said children have fared worst, with some showing signs of stunted physical and mental growth. - AP, London