Page last updated at 06:05 GMT, Tuesday, 17 June 2008 07:05 UK

UN assesses N Korea food supply

By John Sudworth
BBC News, Seoul

North Koreans queue for food at a kiosk in Pyongyang on 26 February 2008
North Korea does not produce enough food to feed its 23 million people

Staff from the UN World Food Programme have been given rare access to North Korea's countryside to assess the seriousness of food shortages there.

The audit, being carried out across more than 50 counties, comes at a critical time.

Some recent reports suggest that the country may be on the brink of famine.

North Korea is estimated to have a shortfall of 1.6 million tonnes of grain because of last year's flood-affected harvest.

But a true picture of the scale of the crisis is very difficult to determine.

There are anecdotal reports from a South Korean aid organisation with access to the North that people are already beginning to die of hunger.

But the South Korean government has suggested that the situation is not yet critical.

Some observers warn that Pyongyang may have an interest in exaggerating its food shortages to win international aid, some of which it uses to feed its military.

The United States government recently agreed to supply half a million tonnes of grain to North Korea through the World Food Programme (WFP), but the offer came with the condition that the agency should be allowed to carry out a proper assessment of need.

Twelve WFP staff and eight US aid agency workers are now fanning out through North Korea, albeit with government minders, visiting hospitals, schools and individual households.

Their work is expected to take two weeks, by which time the world should have a much clearer understanding of the true nature of North Korea's food crisis.

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