Page last updated at 11:39 GMT, Wednesday, 30 July 2008 12:39 UK

UN warns on North Korea shortages

North Korean farmers at work near the demilitarized zone on 30 April 2008
North Korea does not produce enough food to feed itself

North Koreans are experiencing their worst food shortages since the famine of the late 1990s, a UN agency says.

As many as six million people in the country are in urgent need of food aid, according to the World Food Programme.

Most households have cut their food intake and more people are scavenging for wild foods such as grasses and berries, WFP assessors found.

North Korea has relied on foreign food aid for years, but recent flooding and poor harvests have made things worse.

Rising fuel prices and a drop in aid from South Korea have also contributed to the shortages.

'Against the clock'

Speaking in Beijing, WFP's top official in North Korea warned that an assessment by WFP officials last month found millions of North Koreans were "slipping toward precarious hunger levels".

"The last time hunger was so deep and so widespread in parts of the country was in the late 1990s," Jean-Pierre de Margerie said.

The WFP assessment found that almost three-quarters of families had reduced their food intake and an increasing number of malnourished children were being admitted to hospital.

The UN agency says $20m (10m) is needed to help people get by until the autumn harvest.

"We are running against the clock here," Mr de Margerie said.

WFP is also planning a further appeal for $500m so it can carry out an expanded programme of assistance in North Korea until September 2009.

An estimated one million people starved to death in North Korea in the late 1990s after natural disasters and government mismanagement devastated the country's economy.

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