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Last Updated: Thursday, 18 October 2007, 18:45 GMT 19:45 UK
Flood-hit N Korea 'faces famine'
South Korean aid destined for North Korea
South Korea is the largest donor of food aid to the North
Impoverished North Korea could face a famine next year after devastating floods destroyed crops and farm land in August, South Korean researchers say.

North Korea has a 1.4m-tonne food shortfall after floods worsened already chronic shortages, the state-run Korea Rural Economic Institute (KREI) said.

Other experts say a rise in food production may prevent major famine.

Flooding and drought in the 1990s caused a famine that killed up to 2m people, according to some estimates.

The isolated state already needed food aid to supply 20% (one million tonnes) of its requirements before the August floods.

Countries including South Korea and China, as well as aid agencies such as the UN's World Food Programme, are the main donors.

'Fragile situation'

North Korea needs at least 5.3 million tonnes of food until autumn 2008, but it will only be able to supply 3.9 million, leaving a gap of 1.4 million tonnes, the KREI study said.

Food and malnutrition is an issue, but to say that people are starving, we do not have evidence of that
Michel Le Pechoux

It said the communist state's farming sector was damaged to the tune of $275m (134m) in the flooding.

"The North's food inventory has almost hit the bottom, so unless there's an extraordinary measure to stabilise supply, there may be a situation next year similar to the late 1990s," it said.

North Korea has described this year's floods as amongst the worst the country has seen. They affected one million people, killing at least 600 and wiping out more than 10% of farmland.

But Unicef's deputy representative in North Korea, Michel Le Pechoux, said that while the situation was "still fragile", it was not likely to lead to famine.

He said circumstances were very different to the devastation seen in the 1990s.

Grain production has increased significantly in the last 10 years and North Korea's recent deal to end its nuclear programmes has improved access for food aid agencies.

Flood hit Kangwon in North Korea in August 2007
At least 600 people were killed in the August floods

South Korea - the North's largest donor - has increased its annual food aid from 400,000 tonnes to 500,000 tonnes as part of the nuclear deal.

Pyongyang also increased WFP access around the country after the August floods.

"Food and malnutrition is an issue, but to say that people are starving, we do not have evidence of that," Mr Le Pechoux said.

North Korea's extreme international isolation means its foreign currency earnings are tiny, so buying more food to plug the gap is not an option, says BBC East Asia editor Steve Jackson.

But if the KREI is right, Pyongyang will need much wider international goodwill to help feed its population, our correspondent says.

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