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Wednesday, 29 November, 2000, 15:59 GMT
N Koreans eating twigs
A United States congressman who has just visited North Korea says the country's food crisis is one of the great world disasters of the past 50 years.

Hospitals lack basic antibiotics and vaccines
Tony Hall painted a grim picture of people surviving on about 200g of food a day in freezing, dark conditions.

He said the situation in the Stalinist state had deteriorated since last year, with food production down by 50%.

Korean "alternative food"
40% grain
60% twigs, leaves, bark
Mr Hall said most people outside the capital were becoming increasingly reliant on a substitute food containing ground up tree bark and twigs that often caused dysentery, diarrhoea and internal bleeding.

UN appeal

It can't get any worse because we are at rock bottom

Korean official
North Korea has suffered acute food shortages since 1994 because of drought, floods and economic mismanagement.

One US congress report says up to two million people may have died.

Mr Hall said a North Korean official told him: "It can't get any worse because we are at rock bottom."

Food aid
Much of the North's agriculture has been ruined
He told the BBC he had urged North Korean officials to increase access for international aid organisations.

But he said they still believed the United Nations and non-governmental organisations were "the enemy".

Mr Hall's comments came as the UN launched a $68m appeal to help prevent famine in North Korea.

Artificial food

North Korea, the world's most secretive country, very rarely allows foreign visitors to leave the capital Pyonyang.

Hospitals were cold, barren, dirty and filled with the stench of sickness

Tony Hall
But Mr Hall was permitted to visit the eastern town of Chongjin and rural areas.

He told a news conference in the South Korean capital Seoul that hospitals had virtually no medicine, heating or food.

Food aid shipment
North Korea is desperate for food aid
"Electricity ran for no more than two hours a day, and patients were fed less than half the food a human being needs to survive," he added.

Mr Hall displayed a coil of dry brown noodles which he said was made by an "alternative food" factory in Chongjin.

The ingredients were 40% grain and 60% twigs, leaves and bark.

Mr Hall welcomed the warming relations on the Korean peninsula.

But he added: "Children's health and nutrition cannot wait for politicians and diplomacy.

"Every missed vaccine, every missed meal brings us another step closer to death or a diminished life."

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See also:

06 Oct 00 | Asia-Pacific
Japan boosts N Korea food aid
28 Sep 00 | Asia-Pacific
Koreas agree 500,000 ton food loan
22 Sep 00 | Asia-Pacific
N Korea storms leave many dead
20 Jun 00 | Asia-Pacific
North Korea aid plea
13 Jun 00 | Asia-Pacific
Pyongyang reaches out
13 Sep 00 | Asia-Pacific
Kim Jong-il to go South 'in spring'
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