Food runs out for 6 million North Koreans

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The Independent Online

The UN's food agency made an emergency appeal for aid for North Korea yesterday, saying that its supplies were nearly exhausted and it would have to stop sending food to almost all the 6.5 million people it feeds.

Masood Hyder, a representative from the World Food Programme (WFP), said the agency would be able to feed 100,000 people, mostly women and children, over the next two months. "A food crisis is on us at the wrong time," he said. The agency is trying to feed almost a third of the North's 23 million people.

Countries including the United States and Russia have pledged thousands of tons of grain and other food since the WFP warned late last year that its supplies were running low. Butshipments will not start arriving until late March.

"We are trying all emergency measures ... including asking whether the [North Korean] government itself can give us a short-term loan," said Mr Hyder. It is not clear how much food the secretive Stalinist dictatorship has in its stockpiles.

There is mounting tension over the North's nuclear programme. Diplomats from the US, North and South Korea, China, Japan and Russia will meet in two weeks in Beijing for their second round of talks. The US is sending 38,000 tons of grain. Although foreign donors are making a "valiant effort" to separate politics from aid decisions, international tension "certainly affects humanitarian assistance", Mr Hyder said.

He said that he did not expect mass fatalities, but that malnutrition would surge among North Koreans whose daily rations of about 500g of food was the bare minimum. He could not confirm reports that North Koreans were reduced to eating bark.

The WFPblames falling contributions on aid demands from Afghanistan and Iraq. Japan, once a major donor, has withheld supplies, citing the North's failure to resolve the issue of its abduction of Japanese nationals in the 1970s and 1980s.