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Tuesday, January 6, 1998 Published at 20:48 GMT


Largest ever food aid for N Korea
image: [ Food aid will be provided to most children under 12 ]
Food aid will be provided to most children under 12

The World Food Programme is planning to mount its biggest ever operation, in an effort to avert famine in North Korea.

It said food stocks in the disaster-hit country could run out as soon as April.

The UN agency said it needed 657,972 tonnes of food to distribute to 7.5m North Koreans, up sharply from the 4.7m it helped last year.

[ image: Bertini: Ppeople are eating  bark and leaves]
Bertini: Ppeople are eating bark and leaves
The isolated communist country has a population of 23.2m.

"The international community has been very generous in the last year and we are calling on it to be more generous to prevent food shortages becoming a famine," said the agency's executive director Catherine Bertini.

[ image: Maze production is insufficient]
Maze production is insufficient
"We got through last year by the skin of our teeth and managed to avert a major disaster," she told a news conference to launch the appeal for $378m for food aid to North Korea, the largest ever made by the agency.

Its previous largest appeal was for $297 million to combat a drought in 10 Southern African countries in 1992.

Widespread malnutrition

Hunger and malnutrition have become widespread in North Korea since floods devastated large areas of farmland in 1995 and 1996.

The floods were followed last year by a severe drought that drastically cut the grain harvest.

[ image: Agency wants to prevent a famine]
Agency wants to prevent a famine
"There has been increasing harvesting of seaweed. People are using the roofs of their houses to grow vegetables," Ms Bertini said.

"Factories are making small bricks from bark and leaves. These are not nutritious but they fill stomachs."

Officials said North Korea had produced 2.66m tonnes of food for consumption in 1998, 1.52m tonnes of rice and 1.14 million tonnes of maize. A total of 4.61m tonnes is needed to meet demand.

North Korea is likely to be able to import only 700,000 tonnes of food, leaving a large shortfall.

Under the new programme the World Food Programme, which currently helps all children under six, would now provide food aid to most of those under 12.

It also plans to help pregnant women, nursing mothers, orphans and the handicapped as well as 500,000 hospital patients and 500,000 workers.

Ms Bertini said North Korea would allow the agency to boost its international staff from 24 to 46 this year and open two new sub-offices.

In what seems to be a major concession, UN staff will be allowed into the mountainous northern region of Ryangjang, where there have been unconfirmed reports of cannibalism.

The aid will consist of corn-soya blend, sugar, cereals, pulses, vegetable oil and fortified high-energy biscuits. Another 360,000 tonnes of food aid is expected to come from other donors.

Ms Bertini said the appeal would form part of a large request by the United Nations later this month for medicines and special agricultural goods.

It provided the following breakdown of the food aid needed for North Korea:

  • Corn-soya blend: 73,320 tonnes
  • Sugar: 12,480 tonnes
  • Cereals: 412,744 tonnes
  • Pulses: 52,942 tonnes
  • Oil: 38,404 tonnes
  • High-energy fortified biscuits: 68,100 tonnes

Officials said it was too early to predict what kinds of cereals would be needed.

But they noted that last year a total of 90,000 tonnes of rice and 308,000 tonnes of maize were delivered as food aid.

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