Food aid runs out in starving North Korea

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Half a million people in Communist North Korea face a winter of cold, disease and starvation unless foreign donors bail out a United Nations aid programme which is rapidly running out of cash and supplies.

A liaison office established in the capital, Pyongyang, by the UN's World Food Programme (WFP) will close on 23 December unless 15,000 tonnes of rice can be raised for victims of the worst floods in a century.

The WFP arrived in North Korea in November in response to an appeal by the Pyongyang government, after summer storms washed away 1.5 million tonnes of grain. For the past fortnight it has been supervising the distribution of food in the areas worst hit by the floods but the supplies will soon run out, during the middle of the North Korean winter, when temperatures fall as low as -18C.

Doctors with the French charity Medecins sans Frontieres (MSF) have found severe malnutrition among children and pregnant mothers. "It will be a long, cold, hungry winter," says Trevor Page, the WFP's country director in Pyongyang. "Some of the kids MSF are treating up there could be from Rwanda - wizened little children with pot bellies. People are starting to become restless and angry because they are not getting enough food."

North Korea, the last of the old Stalinist dictatorships, has suffered poor harvests for most of the decade; even before the floods, it was predicting a deficit of 1.97 million tonnes. But the government's policy of "Juche", or self-reliance, had always prevented Pyongyang from asking for foreign help.

In June, however, an agreement was reached to receive 300,000 tonnes of rice from Japan - traditionally the object of the North's most vehement anti-imperialist rhetoric. The shipments were officially termed "loans", but the deal ran into trouble after officials in Pyongyang claimed that the rice was being offered as compensation for Japanese wartime aggression. Commercial deliveries from the Thai government were also suspended after the North failed to pay for shipments. And there have been fears that rice designated for starving peasants has been diverted to the country's massive army.

Then in September came the unprecedented request for multinational assistance. A UN survey team reported that 20,250 tonnes of grain, worth $8.8m (pounds 5.6m), were necessary to see North Korea through the winter, enough to feed half a million people for 90 days. But Pyongyang's reputation for making political capital out of aid is hampering the WFP effort. An international appeal raised less than $200,000. The first rice shipment came to only 5,140 tonnes, little more than a quarter of the required amount.

The effects of widespread starvation on the political stability of North Korea are difficult to predict. Since the death last year of the founding president, Kim Il Sung, outsiders have had little idea who is in control. The stories of defectors to the South have fuelled speculation about a power struggle between Kim's son, Kim Jong Il, and the million-strong military which maintains a state of war readiness.

UN staff have reported tense scenes in the starving villages: in one incident food intended for one part of the country had to be distributed prematurely, after a truck was mobbed by angry peasants on the way.